Noir City Seattle 2017 – Film by Film

Noir City 2017 is titled “The Big Knockover” and the theme is heists: big, small, and inevitably doomed. It kicked off Thursday, February 16 with John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), the godfather of the heist film, and Criss Cross (1949), the darkest, most truly noir-ish heist film ever.

I wrote a preview for The Stranger this week but I and other Parallax View critics have covered a number of these films in past reviews and essays. So here some capsules and notes on the films of this year’s festival, many by me, with links to longer pieces where available.

All screenings at SIFF Cinema Egyptian.

Thursday, February 16

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) – 7:00 PM
“Even as the perfect crime collapses in betrayal and the irrational impulses of human nature, The Asphalt Jungle is a model of elegant construction, street-level tragedy, and poetic justice, a film that both embraces the romance of the criminal code and acknowledges the mercenary impulses of outsiders and upstarts who have no code.” – More from Sean Axmaker for Stream On Demand

Criss Cross (1949) – 9:30 PM, 35mm
Burt Lancaster reunites with director Robert Siodmak for his second iconic film noir appearance, a perfect companion piece to his debut film The Killers. Like that classic, this is a heist gone wrong, but the tawdry atmosphere and two-bit players gives the brassy posturing a tarnished quality. Lancaster is an armored car driver still mad about his flighty ex-wife (a perfectly insincere Yvonne DeCarlo) who hatches a plot to rob the payroll with his girl’s hoodlum boyfriend (weaselly Dan Duryea). The impulsive plan spins into a series of double and triple crosses that twist into one of the most hopeless endings in noir history. – Sean Axmaker

Friday, February 17

Kansas City Confidential (1952) – 7:00 PM, 35mm
“Terse and tough, Kansas City Confidential is one of the great lean, mean B crime thrillers, with a bang-up opening, a deadly payoff and a shifting set of identities and alliances that keep pulling the rug from under our hero. The scheming rogues gallery and Karlson’s steely transformation of thick fall guy Payne into a snarling, ruthless hero makes this hard-bitten low budget classic a darkly satisfying caper.” – More from Sean Axmaker for Parallax View

Violent Saturday (1955) – 9:15 PM
Richard Fleischer’s daylight heist thriller Violent Saturday (1955), is not technically a film noir, but it has a toughness, an edge of violence and a distinctively-drawn crew of criminal professionals that drops in a distinctive subgenre of criminal violence in rural settings. In full color and widescreen, it takes place almost entirely in daylight and intercuts the crime story with little melodramas that play out among the citizens of the Arizona mining town, a southwest Peyton Place that is not nearly as innocent as it appears on the surface.” – More from Sean Axmaker for Parallax View

Saturday, February 18

The Ladykillers (U.K., 1955) – 1:30 PM
No notes. Sorry. But it’s a pretty damn funny movie with a very noir sense of humor and a dark British wit.

The League of Gentlemen (U.K., 1960) – 4:00 PM
“a sturdy and meticulous heist film built on an appreciation of teamwork, camaraderie and hard work: a professional work about professionals working. That’s the foundation of many a classic heist or men-on-a-mission thriller and this film offers it as a kind of skewed redemption for a misfit band of former military men, most of them drummed out for conduct unbecoming (you know, petty schemes and such), many of them fallen into cons and criminal schemes and all of them adrift in the post-war culture.” – More from Sean Axmaker for Parallax View

The Killing (1956) – 7:00 PM
Stanley Kubrick’s hard-edged 1956 heist thriller was low budget by Hollywood standard but far more elaborate than her earlier Killer’s Kiss, with a bigger cast, a complicated puzzle of a plot and a clever construction that slips around the timeline of a racetrack heist. Kubrick was a former photographer and he brings a clarity to his imagery as well as the precision that would define his great films. Sterling Hayden stars as the mastermind and familiar film noir faces Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen, Marie Windsor and Ted De Corsia co-star, with stand-out supporting performances by Elisha Cook Jr. (perfectly pathetic as a mousy cuckold manipulated by the scheming Windsor) and Timothy Carey (in a small role as a sharpshooter with a different kind of assignment). – Sean Axmaker

Cruel Gun Story (Japan, 1964) – 9:00 PM
“Takumi Furukawa’s Cruel Gun Story (1964) drops an American B-movie heist blueprint very much like The Killing (along with flourishes of both versions of The Killers) and a romantic criminal code into a world of corporate crime bosses and dishonorable thugs.” – More from Sean Axmaker for Parallax View

Sunday, February 19

The Brink’s Job (1978) – 1:30 PM, 35mm
No notes

The Sicilian Clan (France, 1969) – 4:00 PM
No notes

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) – 6:30 PM, 35mm
“it delivers a good time; and while TV-trained Joseph Sargent directs it crisply enough, what lifts it above telefilm-level expectations is Peter Stone’s very bright job of scripting. Taking the John Godey bestseller as a serviceable basic structure, Stone has devised the most adroit, yet regionally credible, verbal business for virtually everybody who opens his mouth in the course of the picture; a character may lack a name but he won’t be permitted to contribute dead space on the soundtrack.” More from Richard T. Jameson for Movietone News
“The film has the precision and intricacy of a Mission: Impossible assignment and director Joseph Sargent meets the challenge with a style that connects multiple locations through phone calls, radio signals, and subway communications lines with an impressive clarity. Even the chaos is wrangled effectively.” – More from Sean Axmaker for Cinephiled

Charley Varrick (1973) – 9:00 PM, 35mm
“characteristically clean, fascinatingly and unfussily detailed, beautifully paced—a model of movie craftsmanship and a pointed affront to those slovenly wrecking derbies and indiscriminate bloodbaths that have been passing for contemporary action thrillers the last year or so. … the first quarter-hour of Charley Varrick is deeply exhilarating: not only a superior exercise in suspenseful narration but also an up-to-the-moment demonstration that they still can make ’em the way they used to.” – More from Richard Jameson for Movietone News

Monday, February 20

Rififi (France, 1955) – 1:30 PM, 35mm
“Rififi means danger,” proclaimed the ads for this iconic French gangster film in 1955. Close enough. Haggard, worn jewel thief Jean Servais is in threadbare suits and down to his last francs but still dapper and elegant when he hatches the “perfect” plan to rob a jewel shop. The 35-minute heist scene is justly famous, thrillingly executed without a word spoken, and the entire film is meticulously shot with an eye for the dingy beauty of the Paris underworld. American expatriate Jules Dassin’s tale of honor among thieves, patient professionalism, friendship, responsibility, and the romantic code of the “good” crooks and the merciless toll it exacts established the tone and style of French crime films for years to come. – Sean Axmaker

Classe Tous Risques (France, 1960) – 4:00 PM
Claude Sautet made his directorial debut with this tough, lean, smart piece of French crime cinema made on the cusp of the New Wave. Stocky, barrel-chested French crime icon Lino Ventura is the career criminal who tenderly leaves his wife and children to execute a brazen broad daylight robbery. Sautet delivers the tense details of the robbery and the elaborate getaway from the streets of Milan to a boat waiting to deliver him back from exile to his home country of France with precision and crisp professionalism, but that’s merely prologue to the drama that follows when he’s betrayed by his former gang. He hardens to a steely, cold savagery for revenge while an irresistibly charming young Jean-Paul Belmondo (fresh from Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless”) offers unflaggingly loyalty as a young thug with a worldly attitude and an old-school criminal code. Like so many directors of his generation, Sautet is seduced by the romantic codes of honor among thieves and glamorizes the doom inevitable doom that such a life entails. But he never flinches from the contradictions inherent in the enigmatic antihero, whose very professionalism puts his loved ones at risk, in this minor classic of cool French crime cinema. – Sean Axmaker

Blue Collar (1978) – 7:00 PM, 35mm
Paul Schrader’s first film, a heist drama turned social commentary, just oozes 1970s lower middle class milieu through every frame. The living rooms, beater cars, and factory bars are not sets and it shows. He’s written more subtle scripts and his directorial style has a ways to develop, but he pulls a passionate, angry performance from Richard Pryor and captures the vulnerability of working class men struggling to make ends meet in the recession. The fashions have dated, but the frustration is timeless. – Sean Axmaker

Straight Time (1978) – 9:30 PM, 35mm
“He’s a lousy lover, a lousy friend (who is responsible for the deaths of two of his buddies by the end of the film), and a hopeless failure as a parolee. Being a thief and doing what a thief does is the only way Dembo achieves meaning in his life (though we never get an inkling why). Worst of all, he’s no good at it; and his obsessive insistence on allowing his robberies to run dangerously overtime—it has more to do with self-destructiveness than with greed—alienates us as much as it does his partners in crime. “We got time,” he keeps telling Schue; and time, finally, is of the essence.” More from Robert C. Cumbow for Movietone News
“There are no cool-headed masterminds here, no capers timed to the split second, just thieves who jump into robberies with half-formed plans and ride the adrenaline charge until they are caught.” – More from Sean Axmaker for Turner Classic Movies

Tuesday, February 21

Sexy Beast (2000) – 7:00 PM, 35mm
“A refreshing entry among the recent spate of British gangster films, Sexy Beast plays in spots something like a stage play smartly brought to screen. There’s the obligatory high-concept heist (with dreamy underwater scenes of overweight middle-age thugs pounding through the wall of a swimming pool) and moments of cold-blooded violence, which first-time director Jonathan Glazer directs with a confidence and leanness that belies the need for in-your-face shocks and showboat flourishes.” – More from Sean Axmaker for Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The Aura (Argentina, 2005) – 9:15 PM, 35mm
“less a deconstruction of the heist film than an ambitious contemplation of our fascination with the genre, directed with a dispassionate eye at a ruminative pace and centered by a queasily emotionless figure wading through a swamp of moral ambiguity.” – More from Sean Axmaker for Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Wednesday, February 22

Cash on Demand (UK, 1961) – 7:00 PM
Peter Cushing is a Scrooge of a bank manager in Cash on Demand (1961), a mix of heist film, crime thriller battle of wits and modern day A Christmas Carol. André Morell, who played Watson to Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes in Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles a couple of years earlier, is the mastermind and one-man criminal gang who manipulates efficient and petty bank manager Fordyce (Cushing), a pinched, precise, fastidious man who does everything by the book and keeps his distance from the employees. Directed by Quentin Lawrence and based on a television film he had directed earlier, the entire film is kept to a couple of sets and a small, contained cast, and the controlled microcosm is part of what makes it work, as the threats are all outside the walls, unseen and only heard over a phone line or described by the charmingly commanding Morell. The rest is a matter of intimidation, suggestion and precise organization. It wraps up a little too neatly in terms of benevolence out of the blue but it’s still satisfying as a modest little heist mindgame. –Sean Axmaker

Victoria (Germany, 2015) – 9:00 PM
Victoria (2015) is an impressive technical achievement: a street film turned romantic drama turned crime thriller, shot in a single, unbroken take in real time over the course of a couple of hours between late night and dawn. There are no digital tricks or gimmicks to stitch different takes together and in a way it shows. The film has a habit of getting stuck in meandering scenes before it moves on to the next act.” – More from Sean Axmaker for Stream on Demand


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