Second week at the Roxie Theater, San Francisco: a basket load of underground and sometimes sub-basement noirs. Classics rub shoulders with gritty programmers, in one of the nation's most funkified and eclectic rep-houses.
Killer’s Kiss/Female Jungle (1955/1956)
Working on a borrowed $40,000 budget, the young Stanley Kubrick, a Life magazine photographer under the influence of Walker Evans, snatched this melodrama off the streets of New York. The film is an elegy to the visual blare of Times Square by night. Kubrick worked without permits, sometimes using a camera hidden in a truck (as Billy Wilder did for his location photography in The Lost Weekend); sometimes he had to pay the local winos to stay out of the alleys he was shooting in.
It’s a simple story beginning and ending in the now demolished beaux-arts Penn Station: David (Jamie Smith) a glass-jawed welterweight, is heading back to the farm after his final prizefight. Waiting for his train, he remembers the girl on the other side of the airshaft. She, Gloria (Irene Kane) is a taxi dancer, working at “a depraved place, a human zoo”; she has a troubled family history, and is pursued by her desperately lovesick boss (Jeffrey Wright look-alike Frank Silvera, Jamaican born, Boston raised).
The story is as airtight as a mesh bag, but from the accurate boxing match (which surely has to be some kind of inspiration for Raging Bull) to the brutal battle in a mannequin warehouse, the photography matches and surpasses the work James Wong Howe did in Sweet Smell of Success. Kubrick already has the wings and claws of a major film director. There’s material for an essay on this one’s influence on comic art: the roof-running, water tanks and Z-shaped fire escapes look like studies for the best years of Frank Miller’s Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, and there’s the odd appearance of a prankish, fez-wearing pair (David Vaughn and Alec Rubin):
The movie debut of Matt Groening’s Akbar and Jeff?
I captured this screen capture from a site run by the Grand Lodge of British Columbia and the Yukon, who insists these two goofs are not to be mistaken for Shriners.
This site has some of the locations as they are today; no word on where the final chase was shot, among the steep narrow canyons of tenements that must have been certainly torn down by now. 35mm.
BILLED WITH Female Jungle. Lithuania’s answer to John Candy’s Johnny La Rue: such was Bruno VeSota. He earned his place in Hollywood Valhalla as the rich brute in Dementia (1955) who dies hemorrhaging dollar bills. VeSota’s own career is too psychotronic to discuss but he did direct four films. It’s VeSota’s version of The Morning After plot, with lummox’s lummox Laurence Tierney, the glamorous Jayne Mansfield (debuting, and paid $150 for two weeks’ work, she said later) and John “Man of a 1000 movies” Carradine. Who’s guilty? With a cast like this, they all are.
In a Lonely Place/The Scarf
(1950/1951) The title for In a Lonely Place comes from a poem by J.M. Synge, but the sentiment is all Nicholas Ray, cinema's reigning Mr. Vicissitude, whose furious work mirrored the bipolar disorder that tormented him. Humphrey Bogart has extraordinary range here as screenwriter Dixon Steele, 86ed from the movie studios for his drinking and his terrible temper. Suffering from wartime PTSD, and a "rage that only requires a victim" (Ray's own words), Steele finds his last human hope in the form of his neighbor, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), an ex-kept woman trying to retrieve her self-respect. When Steele is accused of a murder, their fragile affair is strained to the breaking point. During the making of In a Lonely Place, Ray was separating from Grahame, his wife at the time, and the layout of the sets are based on Ray’s own home. Bogart, who could be a bit of an empty threat during his last decade, is fierce one last time. 35mm
BILLED WITH The Scarf. In the 1920s, director E. A. Dupont’s Variety was one of the highlights of German Expressionist cinema; after a few sidetracks, Dupont returned to the movies with this brilliantly het-up amnesiac murder tale, as fancy as the Pope’s tuxedo. Not to take anything away from Welles, but seeing The Scarf makes one feel Touch of Evil didn’t really just come out of nowhere. Rare to see Germanic panic matching up with post-war corruption with such symmetry; ultimately, the film gets off two exits from Kuchar City.
Even the beginning demonstrates its distinction: a grove of Joshua trees photographed in filtered but obviously white-hot sunshine. It’s the work of a non-native of California staring in horror going, “What in God’s name are these evil plants?” In the dirt under these hell-bushes, a man crawls his way to a Mojave turkey farm, occupied by several hundred fretful birds. These gobblers are a feathered Greek chorus for old Ezra (James Barton) a sardonic cello-playing exile from the world.
Though John is obviously an escapee from the local lunatic asylum, he redeems himself with hard work and calluses. John and Ezra’s beautiful friendship is disturbed by the entrance of a girl who calls herself “Cash ‘n’ Carrie Connie” (the one and only Mercedes McCambridge) on her way to LA to become a singing waitress at “Level Louie’s” joint.
McCambridge is of course never to be forgot as the voice of Satan in The Exorcist. Welles called her “the world’s greatest radio actress,” and she seizes the stage, acting at a different volume and speed than the rest of the clodhoppers around her. As you can tell from this performance, McCambridge had a life: pious Catholic upbringing, serious alcoholism, ultimately, the mother of a son who embezzled millions, killed his family and committed suicide with two revolvers at once…and since it happened in Arkansas, there’s even a conspiracy theory that Bill Clinton did it. Not joking about that.
The Scarf includes some fine incidental footage of Bunker Hill and a shout out to Stanford (“I’m told they call Stanford “The Farm!” I didn’t know it was a detective farm!”.) The speaker of that witticism is Emlyn Williams, von Sternberg’s Caligula in the never-finished I, Claudius; Terence Davies fans will note also he was the cuckolded judge in the first version of The Deep Blue Sea.
In 35mm, and you’ll be particularly glad for that.
Chinatown at Midnight/So Dark the Night/Bluebeard (1949/1946/1944)
In San Francisco a gang of thieves are tracked through Chinatown because one of them (Hurd “Dorian Gray” Hatfield) wantonly killed his victims. Locations include the old Chinatown phone exchange. 35mm.
BILLED WITH So Dark the Night. Joseph H. Lewis directed this compact story of a famous French detective seeking a vacation in a rural town. Co-written by Martin Berkeley, HUAC’s favorite canary. 35mm.
ALSO BILLED WITH Bluebeard. John Carradine looking (and underacting) as Ryan Gosling would years later; he’s a tormented artist-cum-puppeteer-cum-strangler who barely understands his own urge to kill. The marionette theme (uncanny enough on its own) reflects a pressured artist: this pale beardless Carradine, as elongated as an El Greco figure, wants to bring life to dead wood to life via marionette shows, rather than “killing” women by fixing their images to canvas.
It’s more like De Palma and less pretentious than I’ve made it sound. Eugene Schufftan is credited as “production designer” (the legendary cinematographer wasn’t a member of the cinematographer’s union, notes unsung cinema historian Don Miller); the man who put the British Museum into Hitchcock’s studio in Blackmail creates a reasonably acceptable Paris and Seine. Ulmer’s sometimes collaborator Leo Erdody works Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” on the soundtrack hard, but never exhaustively. Ulmer captures the air of surprising weariness in the hard-bitten shopgirls and the bored gendarme on horseback watching the puppet show. He also makes fine use of Nils Asther (best known from The Bitter Tea of General Yen) as the bemused, affable and rather incompetent copper in charge.
Deadline for Murder/Shoot to Kill (1946/1947) A cop (Paul Kelly) teams with a private eye to track down a gang. If Kelly looks tough, note that this ninth child of a Brooklyn saloon-keeper actually served time in San Quentin for killing a drunken rival in a fistfight.
BILLED WITH Shoot to Kill. Robert Lippert Sr’s films aren’t exactly famed for high production values or depth, but this crime story is one of the most intriguing and speedy films Alameda’s “King of the Quickies” oversaw. Stock footage and newspaper heads advance the plot: the assistant DA (Edmond MacDonald) of a corrupt little city is ready to marry his secretary, when the gangster (Robert Kent) he sent to prison escapes…and it gets way more complicated. Best line: “Dixie” Logan (wiggling his revolver): “Who’s gonna talk—you, or this?” Benjamin Kline (Detour) shot it, and the best moment of noir murk may be a shot of a bar scene, indicated by a hallway with a blaring neon sign reading “COCKTAIL LOUNGE.” Piano soloist Gene Rodgers, given some fine placement here, is famed for doing the keyboards on Coleman Hawkins’s hit record “Body and Soul”. The film boasts strong heroine in the form of Luana Walters, an ill-fated but promising noir actress. She’s handicapped by strange headgear, including the pretty little bandage she wears around her temples as she lolls on her hospital bed, telling her tale of betrayal. Directed by William M. Berke (Highway 13, The Mugger, the not to be confused with Sam Fuller I Shot Billy The Kid and 1948’s Caged Fury: “Psycho lion tamer uses the big cats to commit murders,” raves the IMDb.)
The Sinister Urge/Girl on the Run (1960/1953)
“Branded for torture…A SMUT PICTURE…Sadistic urge of a compulsive madman. ANOTHER SEX MANIAC MURDER! Smut picture racket blamed!” Before we chuckle at Ed Wood, Jr’s last legitimate film feature, observe that the Christian horror film Harmless, currently in production, concerns a cardboard box of satantically-possesed smut. Here Wood takes on the early cheesecake racket, right before he headed off into it himself. A leather jacketed monkey sees, and does. Murder, and that means someone’s responsible.
BILLED WITH Girl on the Run A tale of murder in a burlesque house; so seamy it took two directors to bring it in. Digital. Steve McQueen is apparently in it, as an uncredited extra.
The Underworld Story/He Walked By Night (1950/1948)
Stanley Cortez shot this tale of a disgraced reporter (Dan Duryea) who figures out a new scam. BILLED WITH He Walked By Night. Richard Basehart used to get mocked by those scruffs on MST 3K. Bet they never saw Basehart’s serious as cancer performance as a cop killer, hiding out in the shoebox-sized bungalows in Pasadena, before taking it out to the storm drains. Highly recommended and almost dialogue-free, it’s a demonstration of photographer John Alton's remarkable ability to bring out the contrast in white flesh and black asphalt.
Guns, Girls and Gangsters/Inside Detroit (1959/1956)
“Crime on a big heavy scale!” The pneumatic Mamie Van Doren gets involved with a pair of robbers trying to rob $2 million from Las Vegas casinos. 35mm. BILLED WITH Inside Detroit. Pat O’Brien stars as a dangerous former UAW boss, just out of The Joint, who is trying to blast his way back. The stunning Tina Carver, a constant star of crepuscular pictures, is O’Brien’s arm candy. Former NBC news anchor John Cameron Swayze vouches for it all.