“Noir City: Hollywood” arrives Friday, April 13, 2018 at the Egyptian Theatre with ten nights of classic and ultra-rare film noir thrillers teeming with gloomy streets, murky intrigue, complex troubled heroes who like their whiskey strong and their cigarettes unfiltered, and femmes who can be…well… fatal! Fans of these B-movies, advertised with torrid taglines like “Blood-Red Kisses. White-Hot Thrills. Mickey Spillane’s latest H-Bomb” and “The Kind of Woman Who Most Men Want, But Shouldn’t Have,” will be pleased to know that all but two of the films will be shown on old-fashioned 35mm film prints, projected just as they would have been in the era when the movies were made. Of the two digital presentations, one of them (The Turning Point, 1952) is a new digital restoration.
Presented by the American Cinematheque and the Film Noir Foundation, the festival is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and to honor this milestone, each film in the series is set in the City of Angels. Fans of retro Los Angeles will get plenty of glimpses of downtown’s seedy Bunker Hill and the original Angel’s Flight, as well as many other pockets of the city.
And because the output of film noir titles in the post-WWII years of 1947 and 1948 was high, there are five 70th anniversary screenings of 1948 pictures in the festival, including the Raymond Chandler homage I Love Trouble with Franchot Tone, John Ireland and Raymond Burr; police procedural He Walked By Night, starring Richard Basehart as a psychotic electronics whiz who uses his gift to commit robberies; and Pitfall, with Dick Powell and Lizabeth Scott engaged in an affair that jeopardizes Powell’s piece of the American Dream. (That film also features the interior of the Wilshire Boulevard May Co., soon to be the new Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences museum.) Other 70th anniversary screenings include director Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence with Robert Ryan, Ven Heflin, Janet Leigh, and Mary Astor; and Night Has a Thousand Eyes, a mystery starring Edward G. Robinson as a mentalist who tries to prevent his terrible visions from coming true. The earliest film in the festival is Jealousy (1945), and the ultra-rare The Scarlet Hour (1956) is the latest (with one notable exception, noted later).
“I think L.A. really is the city of noir, both figuratively and literally,” said Film Noir Foundation’s Alan K. Rode (author of a new biography on sometimes-noir director Michael Curtiz), who helped program the festival and will be introducing several of the screenings. “I think these films are really what the entire festival for the entire run has been all about.”
The intrigue starts Friday with 1946’s The Blue Dahlia, starring Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, and a scene-stealing William Bendix, and I Love Trouble, the 1948 thriller (not available on DVD) starring Franchot Tone and penned by Roy Huggins of 77 Sunset Strip and The Fugitive fame.
Other films include the 1997 Oscar-winning neo-noir L.A. Confidential, with an appearance by James Ellroy, who wrote the book on which the film was based; the 1950 Charlton Heston vehicle Dark City; Robert Aldrich’s 1955 masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly; and the 1954 film version of the Jack Webb TV series Dragnet, with actress Ann Robinson joining in person.
Noir City had a serendipitous origin all those years ago. In 1998, Eddie Muller, who is president and founder of the Film Noir Foundation and host of the TCM series Noir Alley, published a book called Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir. At the same time, Dennis Bartok, then a programmer at the Cinematheque, had been looking to put together a showcase of film noir titles. The two men combined forces and created a beloved haven for noir fanatics. In the early days of the festival, it was full of in-person appearances by talent from the films. This is the roster from the 1999 debut lineup: legendary femmes fatale Marie Windsor, Evelyn Keyes, Ann Savage, Coleen Gray, Audrey Totter. Lizabeth Scott, and Rhonda Fleming, as well as master directors Robert Wise, Budd Boetticher, and Richard Fleischer! Sadly, it gets more difficult with every passing year to find talent who lived and worked in that era.
|Eddie Muller with the femmes fatale of the 1999 festival|
So in the earliest years, he and Bartok focused on films people knew little about, such as The Devil Thumb a Ride (1947) and Tomorrow is Another Day (1951), as opposed to the best-known noir titles like Double Indemnity (1944) or Sunset Blvd (1950).
Still, Muller noted, he didn’t know anything about film programming. “All of this has been on-the-job training, so everything I do today is really kind of an outgrowth of the first festival in L.A. - that’s when I started learning that films have owners. The owners change, films disappear and could actually be lost.”
Thus about 15 years ago, Muller created the Film Noir Foundation. “We became a lobbying group and a fundraising entity to actually go out and find and restore film."
The first film the Foundation restored (in conjunction with the UCLA Film Television Archive) was Joseph Losey’s taut 1951 film The Prowler, with Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes, which will screen April 21 as part of a Losey triple bill.
“One of the first shows I did at the Egyptian was The Prowler," says Muller. “We found a print, but it was really not good. As this whole thing grew and I started adding more cities, I was showing it in San Francisco, and realized I was the person destroying the print of The Prowler. At first it was ‘I want people to see this movie’ and then it was like ‘I want to rescue this movie.’ Then the light bulb went off and I said, ‘I’ve gotta figure out some way to parlay the popularity of these festivals into a foundation that can raise money to ensure that the prints continue to exist.’ We’ve done 33 films now.”
The 35mm prints are stored at the UCLA archive. “We know that those are gonna last for at least 100 years,” said Muller. This year’s festival includes several films from the UCLA Film and Television Archive: He Walked By Night, Loophole, and Pitfall.
Rode met Muller during the first festival. “I was there to watch Lawrence Tierney get kicked out of the theater,” said Rode of the notorious rabble-rousing actor. “They were showing Detour with Ann Savage as the guest. The second movie was The Devil Thumbs a Ride - what an apt title - and before the movie he was there yelling and raising hell. They ended up putting him out of the theater during his own movie!”
The core festival audience, Rode noted, has built up over the years. “You still see some of the same people who have been coming to the festival for 20 years.”
And fans have even told him that they plan their whole year around the festival. It isn’t uncommon for people to fly in, especially since the Turner Classic Movie Festival has taken up residence in Hollywood too, typically either right before or after Noir City. The way the events are scheduled, it is possible catch some of both if you time it right. “I mean there’s really that degree of obsession, appreciation, and loyalty for this festival,” said Rode. “I think it’s really appropriate that we decided to show all Los Angeles-based films to celebrate our 20th year at the Egyptian Theatre.” And what a lot of murder and depravity that screen has seen over the years!
These films are also a window into what Los Angeles was like 60 or 70 years ago – how people lived, what the social mores were, the issues WWII veterans faced as they attempted to return to civilian life, society’s role in creating a criminal, the class struggle, racial and ethnic divides, and the many manifestations of advancement in everything from police science to psychology to gender roles (femmes fatale, after all, were usually very independent women who knew what they wanted and how to get it!).
Down Three Dark Streets, a 1954 picture with Broderick Crawford and Ruth Roman that screens April 17, has a climax shot at the Hollywood sign. And according to Muller and Rode, it is marks the first time a film was shot at the sign.
As for the myriad other Los Angeles locations…“I’m well aware of the fact that in Los Angeles, a certain percentage of our audience is almost more about old L.A. than they are specifically about film noir. They come to see the bygone city, or to see the stuff that’s still there. Everybody’s amazed at how little traffic there is,” says Rode.
Armored Car Robbery (1950), screening April 16, has a sequence featuring Torrance oil wells, and “there’s another scene...where Charles McGraw finds the abandoned getaway car from the robbery underneath an overpass,” said Rode. “That was the Vineland 101 Freeway overpass that was being built in the 1950s.” The Big Night and M, two Joseph Losey films from 1951 that screen together on April 21, also feature iconic uses of LA locations. " [M] has the best use of the Bradbury building ever,” said Muller, of a cat-and-mouse pursuit shot in the darkened building.
Both Muller and Rode are excited about the April 19 double bill of rarities - 1952’s The Turning Point with William Holden, and Michael Curtiz’s 1956 The Scarlet Hour, starring Carol Ohmart as an adulterous wife. At one point, she goes to see Nat King Cole at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Andrea Kalas, vice president of archives at Paramount, “made that happen," said Muller, noting she’ll be introducing the rarity screenings with Rode.
“Andrea and I go back a few years now, and I’ve been pestering her about these titles. “The Turning Point is a new digital restoration, but The Scarlet Hour, we’re going to show the original 35mm print. I think that's the only print they have.”
“[Michael] Curtiz used a new type of camera lens for that film,” said Rode. “I am very interested to see that on the big screen because that’s not on DVD, not anywhere.”
Muller said that he’s proud that the Film Noir Foundation has rescued orphaned noir films and that his “longevity and my high profile now with TCM has certainly helped get things out of the studio vaults, because I know these people now and I’m making them money."
“Like I say to Andrea, ‘if you preserve this or if you find us an original print - whatever the case may be - I will get you 10 bookings a year for that film.’ And that’s just me. If other people see it and they want to book it, which certainly happens, then the film has life 70 years later, which wasn’t supposed to happen.”
The 20th Annual Festival of Film Noir takes place April 13-22 on the big screen at the historic Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood - boasting 21 films over 10 nights. An opening night reception features custom cocktails designed just for the event, a visit from the L.A. Vintage Coppers in their vintage police vehicles, and the Dean Mora Trio signaling danger with their cool jazz stylings. Every year a bevy of Film Noir die-hards try to make it through every picture – this year, will that be you?
For the full 2018 lineup, click here.
Veteran journalist Susan King wrote about entertainment at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years (January 1990 - March 2016), specializing in classic Hollywood stories. She also wrote about independent, foreign and studio movies and occasionally TV and theater stories. She received her master's degree in film history and criticism at USC. After working 10 years at the L.A. Herald Examiner, she moved to the Los Angeles Times.
Additional reporting by staff.