Sunday, February 3, 2013

Night Editor (1946)

WHO: Janis Carter plays about as fatale a femme as you can imagine in this picture.

WHAT: With tonight's screening, Night Editor makes its third appearance in San Francisco under the Noir City banner. First playing at the Balboa's extension of Noir City 4, which transported that Richmond District venue back to 1946 for four days, it reappeared at Noir City 7 at the Castro, fitting nicely into the "newspaper noir" theme of that year. It's a tawdry tale of lust and betrayal, that's well worth seeing at least twice.

WHERE/WHEN: 7:30 PM at the Castro Theatre, tonight only.

WHY: There are a lot of terms in the movie lexicon that get thrown around with little regard for their historical roots. I'm guilty of it myself; terms like avant-garde, pre-code, cinéma vérité and even film noir are simply too handy as communication shortcuts to wean off of, even when describing films and trends that have little or nothing to do with the purposes for which they were originally designed. But perhaps no term gets used and abused as frequently as this one: B-Movie. For many people the term is a simple put-down; the "B" just stands for "bad", or perhaps "beneath serious consideration as art". More frequently it's used almost interchangeably with terms like "exploitation" or "grindhouse" or "drive-in" movie. I've even heard it used to generically describe all modern would-be blockbusters aimed at massive mainstream audiences, as opposed to lower-budget independent films aimed at critical acclaim and awards attention. This latter definition is almost a 180° perversion of the original meaning of the term, although I can recognize a certain logic behind this unwitting reversal.

The term B-movie comes from the 1930s when double-features ruled the marketplace. The business model was to pair a somewhat higher-budgeted film with a bigger star and more prestige, with a lower-budget film, giving the public "two for the price of one" without doubling overhead. The biggest studios owned large theatre chains and had units producing 'A' product as well as 'B' product. By the noir era, however, this set-up was already on it's way out. The World War II era moviegoing boom pushed the major studios to release more high-quality films, and they consequently produced fewer B-movies (Warner Brothers got out of B-Movies altogether during the war), leaving the field more open to smaller outfits like Republic and Monogram.

It's the B-movies that are the most highly prized by many of the most devoted noir fans. Smaller budgets often spurred greater ingenuity on the part of directors, cinematographers and other technicians.  Less oversight from studio heads also could make room for more experimentation in theme, style, and even casting. This year's Noir City opened with a B-Movie that is now widely considered one of the greatest films of its period: Gun Crazy, which was made without proven stars on a lower-than-average budget, yet contains some of the most formally and thematically audacious material in all of film noir. (It didn't hurt that it had a brilliant director in Joseph H. Lewis and a great script that came cheap because it was by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo). 

In fact the 2013 edition of the festival may be the B-heaviest one yet assembled by programmers Eddie Muller and Anita Monga, which is very satisfying to those of us who consider the "31 Days of Oscar" the least interesting month of Turner Classic Movies' television programming year. So it's fitting that the festival closes today with a six-film marathon (in two programs) of B-Movies, whether produced at Poverty Row studios like Monogram and Republic, or at "mini-major" studios such as Universal and Columbia which maintained their B production into the post-war era. Night Editor is a Columbia product, initially intended to launch a series of films about night-shift police beat reporters, but the follow-ups never materialized. Such was the way of things in the rough and tumble world of B-Movie-making.

HOW: 35mm print, like all of the screenings at the Castro today.


  1. The true film buff loves them some B movies. I agree that lower budgets call for more ingenuity, and truly creative production teams made the most of them. That is as true for our Poverty Row faves as for indie films today. I recently sung the praises of a 1998 indie film, High Art, for making a virtue of its low budget in producing more realistic settings for its action. I hope this film makes it to Noir City Chicago; it doesn't seem fair that you've gotten it three times, and we not even once!

  2. Seconding Ms. Ferdinand's recommendation for Night Editor to be included in Noir City Chicago's program. The 3D films were interesting in SF this year, if a wee bit headache inducing (maybe its my aging eyesight). The sultry August nights for the Chicago incarnation beg for some good 'B'.

  3. Agree Night Editor is a gem and Janis Carter is really something in it. I thought today's Mary Ryan Detective was a surprising treat. I recommend two books if you can find them: B Movies by Don Miller (1973) and Second Feature by my friend John Cocchi (1991)

  4. Inferno was excellent, Joe. I skipped Man in the Dark because I'd seen it before in 35mm dual-projector 3D and wasn't that impressed with it.

    Marilyn, I really liked your piece on High Art, which was one of my favorite movies of the year back in 1998 (along with The Thin Red Line and Rushmore - since then I've seen some more excellent films from the year like Flowers of Shanghai, but expect I'd still appreciate Cholodenko's film on a revisitation).

    It's interesting to contrast the two-tiered production system of the 1930s-1940s studio era against the modern connection between major Hollywood studios and their indie distribution arms. Since the classic B-movies were not expected to garner prestige but were expected to be profitable, while modern indie films often are made without much concern for profit but rather to aid the long-term careers of participants, the two systems seem to have more differences than similarities. But I'd like to learn more about both models. Perhaps the books Larry mentioned would be good start, at least for the classic-era system.