I Wake Up Screaming (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) is not just one of the great movie titles of classic cinema, it is one of the films that established the distinctive style and attitude of film noir, from the blast of a headline shouting BEAUTIFUL MODEL FOUND MURDERED to the third degree given to swaggering sports promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) under the glare of a blinding lamp in a rather suspicious room of worn brick and cast-off furnishings, more of a cell than an official interrogation room. Mature is lit up in the center of the screen while hard shadows assault the walls and slashes of light and looming silhouettes give the cordon of cops wrapped around him a look more like intimidating mob hoods than New York’s finest. On the other side of the dungeon door is the public side of the detective’s room where Jill Lynn (Betty Grable), the victim’s sister, is treated more gently, but she’s just as trapped. When the camera swings around we see a cage around her. The picture opens with a punch and the backstory is quickly filled in with jabs of flashbacks, jumping back and forth between the smart mouthed dandy of a promotor and the demure young woman as they lay out the events leading up to the murder of ambitious Carole Landis, the hash slinger promoted to celebrity success by Mature like a noir Pygmalion.
The Killers (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is an ingenious double feature: Two crime classics inspired by the Ernest Hemingway short story. Criterion originally released a DVD double feature over a decade ago. Both films have been remastered in HD for the set’s Blu-ray debut and a new DVD edition.
The first 15 minutes of Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) remains the most the most faithful Hemingway adaptation ever put on screen. Two gunmen from the city (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) take over a small town diner to wait for their target. When he doesn’t show, they take the hit to him, and he just waits, broken and hopeless, for them to come and finish him off. Burt Lancaster made his film debut in the role of Swede Anderson and his entrance—a close-up of a haunted face doused in shadow with slashes of light catching his wounded expression as he lay back down on his bed, awaiting his execution with doomed resignation—is one of the greatest screen debuts any performer has received.
Robert Siodmak made more film noirs than any other director. It’s not like he set out to do so–they were considered crime thrillers and murder dramas by the studios and the term film noir was given to the shadowy subset long after Siodmak stopped making them–but he helped define the genre (or the style and attitude, if you prefer) in its glory days.
Cry of the City is not as well known as Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), Criss Cross (1949), and The Film on Thelma Jordan (1950), all of which star some of Hollywood’s most famous (and noir’s most iconic) performers, or his early, shadowy low-budget mystery Phantom Lady (1944), but it should be. It’s a gangster film seeped in shadows, corruption, and psychosis, starring Victor Mature as Lt. Candella, an Italian-American police detective who takes the pursuit of small-time gangster Martin Rome (Richard Conte) personally. They grew up together in Little Italy and Candella doesn’t buy Martin’s excuses of poverty and culture for turning to a life of crime, not with such salt-of-the-Earth parents who treat Candella almost like family. More to the point, he hates how he’s become an outlaw hero to the kids in the neighborhood and especially Martin’s adoring kid brother, Tony (Tommy Cook). When Candella goes knocking on doors for witnesses, he gets them slammed in his face. In a slum where no one trusts the cops, Martin’s brazen defiance makes him a Robin Hood, even if he fails to share any of his ill-gotten gains with the poor.
The film opens with Martin unconscious in a hospital, wounded in a shoot-out that left a policeman dead. When he’s awake he’s a glib, smart-talking guy, working his grinning charm and sardonic wit on the police (who have his ward under guard) and the hospital staff alike, and he has no illusions about his fate.
In 1929, a loose collective of young German filmmakers working their way up the ladder of the German studio system took the reigns of a low budget production about a group of attractive young Berliners who meet up for a Sunday outing to lakes. They shot on the streets of Berlin and the parks and beaches of Wannsee on a minimal budget with non-actors (all playing variations of their real selves, right down to their names and occupations) and whatever equipment they could scrounge together, from rough script from which they improvised freely on location. People on Sunday is, in its own words, “a film without actors.” More than that, it was a film without a studio, a production without studio backing or distribution in place, shot on weekends with volunteer cast and crew: the very definition of independent filmmaking. But if the actors were all amateurs, the filmmakers were, to greater or lesser extent, professionals toiling at the lower levels of the film industry. This film was their chance to show the industry, and themselves, just what they could do.
Released in 1930, People on Sunday–one of the final expressions of the silent era in an industry giving over to sound cinema–became a surprise hit, a highly influential film and, over the years, something of a legend, as it was almost impossible to see in the United States for decades. And reputation aside, the collective that made it include some pretty significant names: Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer shared director credit, Billy (listed here as Billie) Wilder is credited with the script, “from a reportage by” Robert Siomak’s brother Curt (credited here as Kurt) Siodmak, with the legendary cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan behind the camera and Fred Zinneman assisting. That line-up alone (which includes more than one future Oscar winner) made the film a kind of grail for fans of classic movies and film history. The inventive filmmaking, breezy pace, light touch, luscious images and gentle, appreciative spirit of the film makes it a classic.
Author, critic, film authority and festival programmer Eddie Muller was branded “The Czar of Noir” by James Ellroy for his knowledge of and passion for the subject. Since publishing Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir and programming a film noir festival in Los Angeles in 1998, Muller has become not simply the most prominent film noir authority in the U.S., he’s become an ambassador for film noir as the organizer, programmer and Master of Ceremonies of the Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco (and in the smaller traveling Noir City offshoot) and as the president of the Film Noir Foundation, the non-profit organization that puts on Noir City and uses the proceeds to fund film restoration. The Eighth Annual Noir City (with 24 films in 12 programs over 10 days) unspooled at the Castro in San Francisco in January 2010 and the Seattle incarnation (14 films over 7 days) opened on Friday, February 19. (The Hollywood incarnation at the historic Egyptian Theater, where Muller programmed his first film noir festival, is scheduled for April.) I spoke with Muller by phone between the San Francisco and Seattle series and we talked movies, noir icons, film preservation and the thrill of seeing film noir on the big screen. (My profile and preview of the series is at The Stranger here.)
This is the eighth year of Noir City, and the fourth road show edition of Noir City in Seattle. How have you been able to develop it into such a big annual event?
First off, it’s the eighth Noir City Festival we’ve done in San Francisco but I’ve actually been doing them, oh my God, this will be my eleventh year in L.A. at the American Cinemateque, which is where I actually started doing it. But those early ones at the Egyptian weren’t Noir City events, that’s a San Francisco thing, there’s where it was started. And it really was like the perfect storm, in a way. It’s a combination of showing the right kind of films in the perfect venue in San Francisco at the exact right time of year. Beyond that, I guess that somehow it works that people like to have a personality or a face attached to it that they recognize, so that has been helpful, it turns out, that I’m so associated with this festival and that I’m a San Franciscan, that certainly has helped in San Francisco. So that’s really it. There’s nothing else competing in San Francisco at that time of year, is winter, it makes sense for film noir, the Castro is the perfect place to show these films. People have turned it into a real happening and that’s reallyâ€”besides the restoration work and all kind of stuffâ€”it is fascinating to me that we have show, somehow, that you can draw a thousand people on a weeknight to watch sixty-year-old black-and-white films in a theater. It is pretty remarkable.