Saturday, January 21, 2012

Jason goes to Noir City--Opening Night

Eddie Muller's fabulous film noir festival is back, still going strong after one decade. And of course, we start with a pair of San Francisco noir films.

First off, DARK PASSAGE (1947), starring perhaps the greatest trio of stars in all of film noir--Bogart, Bacall, and San Francisco. Bogart plays Vincent Parry, a convict escaped from San Quentin. For the first half of the movie, it plays out almost entirely from his P.O.V., an interesting and engaging technique that literally puts us in the eyes of a criminal. The effect is only diminished slightly when you realize it was used so that we wouldn't see Vincent's face until he gets plastic surgery and finally looks like Bogart. But I'm getting ahead of myself. He escapes San Quentin and is picked up by Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall). This was not planned, she was just in the area painting, but as luck would have it she was actually his biggest fan. See, her father was wrongly convicted and died in jail, and she was convinced the same happened to Vincent. She even attended the trial every day. So her place becomes his safe house as he attempts to change his appearance and escape. But as the city closes in on him, and odd, unfortunate incidents make his appear guiltier and guiltier, eventually he turns from escaping to catching the person who has been framing him all along. A wonderfully made, gripping, pitch perfect noir. This was actually Noir City's inaugural film 10 years ago. It's easy to see why it opened the festival back then, and it's still easy to see why it Eddie would bring it back.

Then the second feature, THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL (1951). Eddie opened up the festivities by talking about his crush on the star, Valentina Cortese. In fact, he was supposed to interview her on camera but things didn't work out. So instead the entire audience recorded a video greeting on Eddie Muller's cellphone for Valentina (some 89 years young.) Anyway, the theme of the night wasn't just San Francisco noir, it was also fake identity noir. In DARK PASSAGE Vincent Parry got plastic surgery and became Alan Linell. In THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL, Nazi concentration camp survivor Victoria Kowelska doesn't need to change her look, she just has to take the papers of her dead friend and fellow inmate Karin Dernakova. Turns out, Karin has a son, Christopher, who was smuggled out of Poland as a baby. He has grown up in San Francisco in the care of Karin's wise old aunt. And so after the war, and after some time in and Allied refugee camp Victoria goes to America as Karin to reunite with her "son." But the life of luxury in San Francisco offers its own tortures, not as explicit but possibly just as deadly as the concentration camps. Karin's aunt is dead, the estate is looked over by the handsome Alan Spender (Richard Basehart, who went on to marry Valentina after they made this movie), a distant relative by marriage. In fact, if it weren't for Karin's aunt leaving the estate to Christopher, it would've undoubtedly gone to Alan (since at the time of her aunt's death, Karin was thought to have been dead, too.) So...there's that money angle, although that's rendered a little moot by Alan marrying Karin. There's also Christopher's caregiver Margaret (Fay Baker), who clearly has a thing for Alan, and who is awfully protective of Christopher. She's clearly none to happy about having Karin around stepping on her turf. So when odd, dangerous coincidences happen (e.g., brakes fail sending Karin careening down San Francisco's infamously steep streets), there's plenty to be suspicious about. Or it's all a coincidence and she's just so shaken up about her traumatic life in the concentration camps (and guilt over stealing her friend's identity) that she has become delusionally paranoid.

And that's how Noir City opens. Time to head back for a quadruple bill today.

Total Running Time: 199 minutes
My Total Minutes: 261,521
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