Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Festivals, Film Noir

Legends of the Fall, 2011: Another noir season at SAM

Ella Raines looking far from her usual all-American girl self in an especially atmospheric moment from Robert Siodmak's "Phantom Lady"

“Desperate men and dangerous women, smooth talk and barbed wisecracks, cheap perfume and gun smoke, dreams and dead ends. The night, shaped like movies. The world’s longest-running film noir series celebrates its thirty-fourth season with an opening night feast of black and white doughnuts, courtesy of Top Pot Doughnuts.”

The words and the address are inimitably Greg Olson’s; he’s been Seattle Art Museum film programmer for more than those 34 years. This autumn, for “Heart of Darkness: The Film Noir Cycle,” Olson’s managed to retrieve a night from the SAM powers-that-be, who last year cut back his series from ten films to eight. 2011’s noirfest features nine titles, to run Thursdays from Sept. 29 through Dec. 8 (omitting Oct. 14 and Thanksgiving), at 7:30 p.m. in the museum’s Plestcheeff Auditorium.

It’s the best batch in several years, starting off with two pungent classics from noir’s golden age. Fact is, I used to open my own University of Washington film noir classes with Phantom Lady (Sept. 29), the 1944 Robert Siodmak picture that Telluride Film Festival co-founder Tom Luddy once called “the Citizen Kane of B-movies.” Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, it’s a feverish hour-and-20-minutes in which sweltering urban heat, the pervasive cheapness of Universal production values, and director Siodmak’s jaggedly Germanic style combine to create a near-hallucinatory experience. A respected engineer (Alan Curtis) is accused of his wife’s murder; his only alibi is a nameless woman with whom he shared an innocent evening at the time the crime was committed. Washington-born Ella Raines plays the loyal, and of course secretly adoring, secretary who embarks on a quest to locate the woman and save her boss. Have no doubt that she gets herself into sundry seamy and queasy situations—none seamier and queasier than an after-hours flirtation with a leering jazz drummer, an indelible portrait by Elisha Cook Jr. Others in the cast include Franchot Tone, Thomas Gomez, and Fay Helm (in the title role). Longtime Alfred Hitchcock associate Joan Harrison produced.

Technically I suppose it could be objected that the 1944 Ministry of Fear (Oct. 6) isn’t film noir but, instead, one of director Fritz Lang’s wartime thrillers (cf. Man Hunt and Hangmen Also Die!). Then again, Lang’s whole style and worldview go a long way toward defining the noir universe—and in any event, Ministry of Fear is a gripping suspense film, based on the “entertainment” by Graham Greene. The film’s opening—a masterly shot that begins behind the main title—finds an asylum inmate (Ray Milland) awaiting release after two years detention for the mercy-killing of his wife. Within minutes of being reintroduced to the outside world—WWII England—our traumatized protagonist becomes embroiled in a Nazi spy plot, and is more or less on the run from then on. The movie ducks the issues of guilt raised in the Greene book but atones by dazzling us with one sinister set-piece after another. Making the film was an unhappy job for Lang, forced to play second fiddle to producer-screenwriter Seton I. Miller, and he badmouthed it to the end of his days. Still, for sheer directorial skill it contains some of his most stunning work, and it began a remarkable three-film streak for Lang—and for supporting actor Dan Duryea: soon to follow were Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street.

Olson can always be relied on to push the noir envelope once or twice every autumn, and the next item on his docket is surprising: A Place in the Sun (Oct. 20). Whereas the majority of noir specimens originated in or near the B zone, this is as prestigious as prestige pictures come—a top-of-the-Paramount-line adaptation of a literary classic (Dreiser’s An American Tragedy) with one of the hottest stars of his day, Montgomery Clift, and an honored director, George Stevens, who would go on to win the Oscar for it. (The film itself was a prime contender for Best Picture of 1951, losing out along with rival heavyweight A Streetcar Named Desire to An American in Paris.) Dark and doomed the storyline may be, and its critique of society and the American Dream are in keeping with noir values, but does the film have the acrid bite to seal the deal? Discuss amongst yourselves. With Elizabeth Taylor at her most luminous and Shelley Winters as, respectively, Clift’s high- and low-born loves.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes (Oct. 27) is another Cornell Woolrich tale, and John Farrow directed it in between two noir beauties, The Big Clock and Alias Nick Beal, with Jonathan Latimer working on all three screenplays. Throw in Edward G. Robinson as a showbiz mentalist who suddenly finds his predictions coming true, and a cast including Gail Russell, John Lund, and William Demarest, with John F. Seitz (Double Indemnity) as cameraman, and anticipations run high. A couple of TV viewings way-back-when left me sorely disappointed, but I’m game for a fresh look.

It’s also been decades since my one viewing of the 1955 Queen Bee (Nov. 3), with Joan Crawford as an aging Southern belle who does her utmost to wreck the lives of all around her. This was the maiden directing effort of screenwriter Ranald MacDougall, who ten years earlier had played a key role in adapting Crawford’s Oscar-winning vehicle Mildred Pierce.

Samuel Fuller wrote, produced, and directed The Crimson Kimono (Nov. 10), a 1959 movie with “bravely complicated ambitions.” To continue quoting myself (a review written for “Two Los Angeles police detectives (Glenn Corbett and James Shigeta) investigate the murder of a stripper shot down in the middle of Main Street (a scene Fuller filmed without forewarning the local citizenry). As the case unfolds, both guys—partners, roommates, and blood brothers since the Korean War—fall in love with the same key witness (Victoria Shaw). Fuller returned again and again to the theme of America as a multiracial, multicultural society; The Crimson Kimono, in addition to many passing tributes to the Japanese-American community, dares to explore the theme of a sympathetic minority figure who projects racism onto others. Appropriately, the movie is filled with jagged compositions and deliberate violation of smooth editorial rhythm, all in the service of portraying a world populated by myriad Others.”

The late Blake Edwards made Experiment in Terror (Nov. 17), which I recall as a suspense movie with a grip of steel. Lee Remick stars as a Bay Area bank employee pressured by an unknown man into helping him rob the place. Glenn Ford plays the F.B.I. man heading the hunt for the culprit, who’s a master of disguise with a gratuitous mean streak besides. Edwards withheld the player’s name till the end of the movie, so it goes unmentioned here—though he’s a fellow who did sterling work for the director both before and after this 1962 picture.

I’ve never seen Kitten with a Whip (Dec. 1), a 1964 showcase for Ann-Margret written and directed by Douglas Heyes, whose credits were mostly in television. Ms. Olsson portrays a very bad girl who invades the home of a rising politician (John Forsythe) and brings bad company with her. The film has a cult reputation.

As has become his custom, Olson wraps with a film of note made well after the classic noir era had ended. This year it’s the 1973 The Long Goodbye (Dec. 8), Robert Altman’s revisionist take on the last of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels and the whole tradition of the private eye as knight-errant. Elliott Gould’s Marlowe is something Bogart’s, Dick Powell’s, or Robert Mitchum’s never were—scuzzy—and his mantra is “It’s OK with me.” My initial response to the film was anger that Altman & co. had made a travesty of Chandler and his most celebrated character. I still think they didn’t play fair with a fine novel, but a later visit to the film allowed me to play fair with it—a radically brilliant movie on its own terms. Best way in may be the world-class cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, which “writes” the movie at least as much as the script by The Big Sleep screenwriter Leigh Brackett does.

Series tickets for “Heart of Darkness” are $59 for members of SAM, SIFF, NWFF, and/or The Film School. Unaffiliated adults get one for $66. Purchase series tickets online here. (Admittance to individual films is sometimes doable; show up by 7 p.m. with $10 in hand.)