Thursday, January 30, 2014

Halftime in Noir City

Taking place at the end of every January at the Castro Theatre, the Noir City festival unleashes both classic and obscure films noir for enthusiastic, often sold-out crowds who thrill to black-and-white stories of conflicted investigators, femmes fatale, and an uncaring, often violent world that never plays fair. The Film Noir Foundation, fronted by noir historian/writer Eddie Muller, not only resurrects classic films in this intriguing and captivating genre, but often goes some distance to track down forgotten noirs to rescue their often damaged elements, restore them to good condition, and then screen them.

Noir City's curatorial largesse peaks this year (its 12th edition) as the festival goes international. For the first time most of the festival's offerings come from countries outside the U.S., showing that this distinctly American cinematic subgenre had simpatico correlates and shadows across the world. Many of these films are unknown by most audiences, and a few of them are getting their first-ever American screenings during Noir City.

I normally pick and choose every year, but this year's festival was the first one that I bought an all access passport for. I skipped the last two nights just to get a breather/palate cleanser, but here are a few things I've observed so far:

--Though Journey into Fear, the third and final movie made by Orson Welles & his Mercury Theatre company for RKO, is the most butchered and compromised of the three (and completely ended Welles' relationship with RKO), it still has a peculiar gonzo energy. The film had a somewhat fluid creative process, which brings a special elan to its globe trotting story in which Joseph Cotten bounces across Europe pursued by a rogues gallery of shadowy and grotesque agents. It was nicely echoed in second feature The Third Man; it operates on a smaller geographical scale, but Cotten is even more unsure whom to trust.

--I clearly need to get up to speed on Mexico's mid-century cinema. In The Palm Of Your Hand, the story of a psychic/con man undone by a comely mark, is just as stylish (and a good deal more poetic) as its American contemporaries. And the melodrama Victims of Sin (an exemplar of the cabaretera subgenre detailing the tragic romantic misadventures of nightclub performers) offered a dizzying cavalcade of uninhibited moments. Veteran performer NinĂ³n Sevilla is equally spellbinding whether she's dancing & singing or jumping through a window and blowing pimps away.

(--Parenthetical: NoirCity's audience is composed of quite a few people who get bent out of shape by movies that don't conform to their notions of what film noir truly is. Anyway.)

--There're a number of films noir that clearly manifest some of the lingering issues and trauma of WWII. Sometimes their heroes are returned soldiers, feeling displaced and alienated from the world that they were ostensibly on the battlefield to save. Other times the chaos unleashed by the war seems to have crept into all nooks and crannies of the civilian world, and all bets are off. This is, of course, true for movies made in other nations involved in that war during the noir era.

Indeed, movies like Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog (which screened on Sunday) remind us that most great crime fiction is social fiction. Detective Toshiro Mifune's search for his stolen gun takes him across a Japan that still bears the wounds of the war. The occupying American forces are noticeably absent. Cops are unnerved by the humanity they share with the crooks they're chasing, which has never seemed more evident than now, post-war. And when Mifune decides to go undercover among the poor and destitute, it's easy: he just puts on his army uniform.

--If Stray Dog probes the wounds left by the war, Germany's The Murderers Are Among Us sticks a finger in and twists. The first movie released in Germany after the war (and hitting cinemas just days after the Nuremberg trials wrapped up), the movie is a protracted exercise in self-loathing, lingering on both the wreckage of Berlin and the difficulty experienced by German citizens in simply getting on with their lives. Filmmaker Wolfgang Staudte used the film to process his own complicity in the Nazi war machine (having worked on propaganda films during the war), and one of his protagonists, the alcoholic doctor Hans Mertens, plots revenge against his former captain, now living large and guilt-free as an industrialist. Though the ending was changed on the order of Soviet authorities (who feared it was an incitement to vigilante justice, no matter how dramatically correct it was), the film is still one of the saddest, darkest, and most despairing things I've ever seen.

--Co-feature Berlin Express is more conciliatory. Assembled by Bert Granet (during his pre-Twilight Zone days at RKO), the film is basically a whodunnit, largely set on a train to Berlin, in which an international group of travelers fight to resist a Nazi plot to kidnap a German intellectual fighting for peace. As dark as the action often gets (and director Jacques Tourneur spins his deft and artful insanity in some gloriously unsettling moments), it ends on an upbeat, even moving note of reconciliation that not only holds out hope for a rebuilt Germany, but an avoidance of the looming Cold War as well. (And it nicely counterpoint's The Third Man's devastating final separation, as well, offering a cross-Noir City rhyme.)

But the break's over. Tonight's program features a pair of Argentinean movies that I've been waiting years for; the Film Noir Foundation made a trek to Argentina few years ago, and were ecstatic about what they found. And right here: the follow-up, with the rest of the fest.

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