Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Report From Noir City DC

Yesterday I went to the AFI Silver (located in downtown Silver Spring, MD) to see a couple of the best noirs ever made. The films were part of a series the AFI is running called Noir City DC. The films they were showing were The Prowler by Joseph Losey and Raw Deal by Anthony Mann. I'm a big fan of both of these movies, but you rarely (i.e. damn-near never) get to see them in the theater.

The Prowler is a full-tilt masterpiece, a black-as-midnight story about an unhappily married woman named Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) who calls the cops after she spots a peeping tom outside her window. The cops show up to investigate, but unfortunately for Susan one of them is a charming rake named Webb Garwood (played by the congenitally underappreciated Van Heflin) who takes one look at her and decides she belongs to him. This film is a gorgeous piece of work, lovingly restored by the Film Noir Foundation, a nonprofit outfit that saves these beautiful old, largely forgotten crime flicks. The film isn't available on DVD, but bootleg versions are floating around out there and, of course, the FNF sponsors showings in different cities. Try to find it if you can. Losey's direction is subtle (we're never exactly sure what Webb's game is, though we're sure he has one), and the script by blacklisted Dalton Trumbo is a sophisticated piece of work that keeps getting more complicated as the film progresses. Both Susan and Webb continue to surprise us, their characters changing in relation to each other until the very end of the film. What, for example, does Susan want from Webb? It's hard to say--in many ways, she's as complicated as he is--but what's easy to say is how extraordinary Keyes is as Susan. Her performance here is exhibit A for my theory--born out by 99 River Street and The Killer That Stalked New York--that Evelyn Keyes was the most underrated actress of the 1950s.

The second film on the bill was Anthony Mann's Raw Deal. Mann is most famous today for his Westerns with Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, but among noir geeks he is generally considered one of the masters of the classic era crime flick. His work was heavy on ass-kicking (his rough-and-tumble movies are among the most violent in the genre, up there with Karlson and Fleischer) and they were also enlivened by the work of cinematograper John Alton. Here's another theory for you: Alton was the most important artist in noir. Bar none. No director, actor or actress was greater than Alton. His films will remind some newbies of Sin City, and it's clear to see his influence on Miller's original graphic novels as well as the film. Believe me, though, Alton is better. See Raw Deal--available on DVD--to see what I'm talking about. It's gorgeous piece of work, featuring Clarie Trevor and Marsha Hunt as two women in love with the same escaped convict (Dennis O'Keefe). The three leads are terrific and Mann's direction is brutal and immediate (he loved to move action up until it nearly touched the camera lens). Alton's lighting is stark and gorgeous, no one did high contrast black and white like this guy, and his work is here is among his best (He Walked By Night, T-Men, and the imperfect-though- underrated I, The Jury). If all that isn't enough, the movie also features perhaps Raymond Burr's best villain performance.

The program yesterday also featured introductions to the films by Foster Hirsch and Eddie Muller. Hirsch is the author of a terrific noir book called The Dark Side of the Screen as well as the biography of Otto Preminger, one of the genre's great practitioners. He's a semi-regular at the AFI. I saw him introduce Preminger's Fallen Angel and Angel Face.

Eddie Muller is a hero of mine, a great author and a hell of a activist. He wrote the single best--and certainly the most entertaining overview--of film noir out there, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, as well as Dark City Dames a collective biography of Evelyn Keyes, Ann Savage, Marie Windsor, Colleen Gray, Audrey Totter and Jane Greer. He's also the author of a couple of good noir novels and the director of a short film called The Grand Inquisitor, which was screened after Raw Deal (it's a fun piece of business featuring a creepy performance by Marsha Hunt). His most important work, however, might be as a preservationist of classic film noir. He's the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation. I got to speak with him before the showings, and he told me that he felt chief job was to be an advocate for these films, struggling to get the studios to see the goldmine they had in their vaults. I asked about Too Late For Tears--a personal obsession of mine and one of the very best noirs ever made--and he said it was next of FNF's list of films to restore. That means that you and I might one day get to see Liz Scott's best movie projected in a theater. This is due to the efforts of Eddie and his organization.

To learn more about the Film Noir Foundation (including how to lend support) check out their website:

Quite honestly, this festival, which started Oct. 17th has exceeded my expectations. They had Farley Granger in town to attend the showing of Strangers on a Train, screened the incomparable Detour (not a great print unfortunately, but still...), showed Mann's great Side Street, and unleashed Tomorrow is Another Day, a Steve Cochran thriller which is obscure even by noir standards. They also showed a couple of overrated classics, Double Indemnity and They Live By Night. All in all, the festival has been a raging success, and still to come are Kiss of Death and Night and the City.

If you live in the DC area, you owe it to yourself to try to make it out to the remaining days of the festival. The AFI is the best theater in the country, and their presentation of these great films is topnotch (the pristine print of Raw Deal was on loan from the Library of Congress). In his closing remarks about the festival, Eddie referred to it as the "first" DC Noir. That's a good sign. Maybe next year we'll get some Liz Scott.

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