|Eddie Mueller speaks before a film at Noir City Seattle, Egyptian Theater|
After years of not quite making it to the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City festival, I finally decided that 2018 was going to be my year. While I only saw four of the eighteen films programmed, I am now hooked. Sign me up for a series pass in 2019!
There are two elements that make this series essential: it has the perfect mix of familiar and rare flicks, all presented with a high standard of quality, and each is preceded by fascinating film introductions from the knowledgeable Czar of Noir Eddie Mueller. Now TCM viewers can also get a taste of Mueller’s cinema smarts via his weekly Noir Alley program, but I must say it is worth seeing him in person, where he clearly delights in interacting with the crowd and chatting up noir fans face-to-face.
I attended two nights of this year’s festival in Seattle, at the Egyptian Theater, and had distinctly different experiences with each of these double features, all four of which were presented in 35 mm.
Flesh and Fantasy (1943)
I’ve never been a big fan of omnibus films. They often feel too scattered to me and made with not enough understanding of how differently short stories must be approached. This European-flavored production, directed by Julien Duvivier and starring a fascinating cast of Hollywood stars works brilliantly though, because it keeps a steady thread of magical fatalism winding through its episodes, giving it a cohesive feel. The three stories have been compared to the dark, supernatural Twilight Zone television series and the description is apt. In essence, they are tales of lovers struggling to survive widely varying difficulties. Given this theme, there couldn’t be a more perfect cast than the likes of Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck, Charles Boyer and Betty Field, all of whom could easily grasp the romance, hope and pain of their roles.
This short film was originally intended to serve as the opening segment of Flesh and Fantasy. Instead it was excised by Universal Studios and expanded into its own feature. Starring former child star Gloria Jean as a blind farmer’s daughter and Alan Curtis as an accused robber on the run, it has a few magical elements that unfortunately gave some audience members the giggles. While I could see how a few moments where Jean’s songs attracted animals to her might have had an amusingly Disney princess-like feel, it was a bit disappointing to be taken out of the moment by the laughter. While the story worked as a stand-alone, it would be interesting to see how the footage intended for Flesh and Fantasy would have fit into that film.
While my first night at the festival was magical and surreal, the second had a much rougher edge. This pair of thrillers left me plenty tense.
The Accused (1949)
I have never felt more empathy for Loretta Young than I did for her here as a college psychology teacher who kills a student who attempts to rape her. Knowing that she had had a similar experience with Clark Gable (as noted by Mueller in his introduction) and who knows who else in her Hollywood career, I was especially anxious watching her deal with her trauma while observing the police hunting for her without knowing she is the killer. She has a romance with a lawyer played by Robert Cummings, an actor who used to seem useless to me, but who has grown on me because of a dark understanding of human nature he brings to the best of his roles. Police detective Wendell Corey watches their romance unfold with good-natured envy, while slowly realizing he’s really not going to like doing his job this time around. It's an interesting flick because of the tenderness with which it treats its assault victim and the way it breaks with convention here and there, ending how you expect it to, but not where.
The Threat (1949)
As tense as The Accused made me, I quickly realized it was a cocktail party compared to this violent, tightly-wound suspense noir. Charles McGraw is a sociopathic nightmare as an ex-con who escapes from prison and sets out to get revenge on his enemies before he makes a full getaway. His lack of conscience gives him power over his showgirl ex (Virginia Grey), the district attorney, a police detective, a truck driver and a pair of greedy hoods. The crazy thing is that you believe this one man could control them all and you even wonder if he’s going to get away with it all. Grey is especially moving as a woman who appears weak, until you realize how much she has to have survived living the way she does. McGraw is one of the nastiest noir hoods I’ve ever seen, much scarier than the more cartoonish villains like Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death. He reminds me a lot of Lawrence Tierney, who is perhaps the only one who could top him in nasty behavior, and that's just because he always makes you wonder if he was acting or just being himself.
Even catching a couple of nights of this festival was a thrill. It was wonderful to see four completely new-to-me films, lovingly presented and with an appreciative audience. I was especially glad I went into the screenings knowing nothing about what I was going to see; it was a good situation in which to put my trust in the programmers. If you have the chance to check out any of the festival's remaining engagements as it travels across the country, I enthusiastically recommend it!