Saturday, January 30, 2016

Scarlet Street (1945)

WHO: Fritz Lang directed this, and Edward G. Robinson starred in it.

WHAT: A remake of Jean Renoir's 1931 masterpiece La Chienne, about an amateur artist who finds himself taken advantage of by a conspiracy of small-time criminals, Scarlet Street has a darker ending than Renoir's original, and is frequently cited as an important piece of the mid-1940s film noir cycle.  As "Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller wrote in the conclusion of his two-part Keyframe article on the film, it marked a key moment in Lang's career. Quoting from Muller's article:
Starting with Scarlet StreetLang claimed that all his films “wanted to show that the average citizen is not very much better than a criminal.” We must always be on guard from ourselves, and our deepest desires. Lang’s early films displayed a dark fascination with the vagaries of fate. After Scarlet Street that changed.
WHERE/WHEN: Screens at the Castro Theatre today only at 4:15 PM.

WHY: I didn't have time to ask Muller about Scarlet Street when I interviewed him recently, so I won't be publishing more outtakes from our conversation here, but I did want to highlight this film as a true film noir masterpiece that completely fits this year's Noir City "Art of Darkness" theme. In fact when I first heard the theme announced this was the first film that came to mind as an obvious program choice (even though it has screened at a prior Noir City festival, back in 2007). Since I've not seen Specter of the Rose yet, I can also say that it may be your last chance to see a true film noir masterpiece at this year's festival, as while tonight's other presentation, The Red Shoes is an incredible, very dark film, and a perfect fit in this year's artist-centric program, it's still a far cry from film noir. Meanwhile tomorrow's Peeping Tom/Blow Up pairing, while also arguable masterpieces, treads into the territory of the noir-influenced sixties art film, out of film noir itself. That's okay. They're a great way to close the program by shepherding the audience out of the chiaroscuro world we've inhabited for the past week or so.

Last year's Noir City wrapped up with a sixties double-bill as well, a The Honeymoon Killers and Seconds pairing that seemed to blow every mind in the theatre. Seconds makes its way back to Frisco a year later as the closer for the Roxie's February 5-7 "Mad Men Weekend" featuring film and television critic Matt Zoller Seitz introducing four excellent movies that influenced that recent TV hit's aesthetic. The program includes another previous Noir City closing film, The Sweet Smell of Success, as well as Billy Wilder's The partment and Frank Perry's bizarre, amazing The Swimmer. Though the Roxie indicates these all as digital presentations, the Film On Film Foundation seems to have other information about Seconds being shown on 35mm, though as I recall that site originally listed its Noir City screening last year as being in that format, which was not borne out at the actual showing. Other upcoming 35mm Roxie showings include two pre-Valentine's showings of John Waters's Polyester (in Odorama!), and, on February 25, Too Late, the experimental 2015 neo-noir closing Indiefest this year.

Meanwhile, I picked up a paper copy of the new Castro schedule and was able to see the back page, which lists the formats of each film screening (along with succinct and usually-enticing program descriptions) before the information appears on the theatre's website. My previous posting that rounded-up the upcoming programs there would have been more effusive had I seen it in time. lmost everything I'd hoped to be screened on 35mm will be, including every single one of the films shot by departed cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Obviously I will be skipping the live Oscar broadcast in order to watch a 35mm print of Heaven's Gate February 28- I've been waiting many years for such a screening (I've never seen this film before at all). Might as well make it a marathon that day, too, with its double-bill-mate America America being shown on 35mm as well. (I feel a bit stupid for not having immediately recognized that the Zsigmond films all partner with a film shot by another recently-deceased master DP,  Haskell Wexler- all his films show on 35mm as well. Maybe because I've seen fewer of them; Bound For Glory will also be a first for me). I also got word on the pre-code Wednesday formats: all the screenings will be 35mm except for Safe in Hell and The Bitter Tea of General Yen, which makes me very excited indeed. Especially for the back half of the opening program: Two Seconds, starring Scarlet Street protagonist Edward G. Robinson.

HOW: Scarlet Street screens today as part of an all-35mm triple-bill also including John Brahm's excellent Hitchcock remake The Lodger and Edgar G. Ulmer's Bluebeard. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

Screen capture from Warner DVD
WHO: Oscar Wilde, the "Irish dramatist, poet, novelist and essayist known for his biting wit, flamboyant dress, glittering conversation and enduring artistic achievements" wrote the novel on which this film is based. The quote comes from Wilde's plaque on the Rainbow Honor Walk on the sidewalk just a few dozen feet down the hill from the Castro Theatre. Thankfully the original plaque, with its embarrassing typo ("bitting wit") has been rectified.

WHAT: I read Wilde's novel years ago and loved it, but have yet to see this adaptation. Dave Kehr calls is "a good movie" and it takes a pretty stratospheric place on Jaime Christley's 1945 top ten list. On the other hand Fernando Croce calls it "an instance in which an outright debacle would have made a much more interesting film," taking director Albert Lewin to task while praising its performers Hurd Hatfield, Angela Lansbury and George Sanders, if not quite their performances. This is still probably the most well-known version of the novel, despite a 2009 British production that has some fans.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 7:15 tonight only at the Castro Theatre as part of Noir City

WHY: What better place to see an Oscar Wilde movie than at the Castro Theatre? A 1400-seat Timothy Pfleuger gem built in an era much closer to Wilde's than our own, but in a neighborhood that still feels like it owes a debt to prominent pioneers like him. The Castro has been San Francisco's home to Noir City for twelve of its fourteen years and is an example of an event and a venue being a perfect match for each other. Castro regulars know that for ten days they'll have to plan their bathroom visits carefully in order to avoid long lines, and in exchange they're allowed to sit in the usually-closed-off balcony, where the most comfortable seats in the house are located.

The Castro just announced its February calendar on its website and it's pretty outstanding (it has to be, I suppose, to stay relevant now that the new Alamo Drafthouse is deep in its "signature" programming, and the Pacific Film Archive is set to grab a lot of attention as it re-opens in a new location close to the Berkeley BART station next week). Some potential highlights include: underrated neo-noir Copland screening Wednesday February 3rd in a Stallone double-bill with Creed; a February 13 pairing of Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans with Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon; a Valentine's Day marathon of Casablanca with Notorious (also screening together at the Stanford this coming weekend) as well as the new documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut (a love story of a more cinephilic sort); Truffaut's Jules & Jim on February 18 (a day after his counterpart Jean-Luc Godard's rarely-shown Sympathy For the Devil); A February 15 pairing of George Lucas's American Graffiti (his best film, IMHO) with Steven Spielberg's (and perhaps more importantly the late great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond's) Close Encounters of the Third Kind; more great Zsigmond showings including McCabe & Mrs. Miller February 21, Deliverance February 23, and Heaven's Gate February 28 (a very good Oscar night alternative). There's also a hint of March offerings including a Jean Cocteau double-bill on the 3rd and a David Bowie tribute screening of The Man Who Fell To Earth with co-star Candy Clark in person, on March 12th.

A February 24th showing of Howard Hawks's Scarface marks the beginning of a six-Wednesday stand of 1931-1933 "pre-code" gems programmed by Elliot Lavine. I've seen eleven of these fourteen sex- and crime-oriented entertainments, and there's not a one I wouldn't recommend to someone who hasn't seen it before. The ones I'm eager to see for myself for the first time are Two Seconds (also on the 24th), Torch Singer on March 2nd, and (not listed on the Castro site) Downstairs on March 23rd (paired with The Bitter Tea of General Yen). I'm also always up for a big-screen rewatch of films like Shanghai Express and Safe in Hell (March 9th), I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang and Wild Boys of the Road (March 16th) and Island of the Lost Souls, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Freaks (March 30th). Every one of these films should appeal strongly to almost any Noir City regular; this period of the early 1930s and the mid 1940s have some interesting affinities in Hollywood.

HOW: The Picture of Dorian Gray screens on a double-bill with the UK rarity Corridor of Mirrors. The latter will be screened as a DCP, while the Picture of Dorian Gray will screen as a..., well, I'd rather let Eddie Muller break it to you. This is what he said when I interviewed him for Keyframe Daily recently:
I had my heart set on finding an original print of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Have you ever seen that? It has Technicolor inserts in the film. I was always like, "why hasn't there been a restoration of this?" Harvard Film archive has a 35mm print. But they admitted, under slight pressure, that the color sections had faded. Warner brothers, which owns the rights to the film, restored it digitally to put it out as a Blu-Ray. But there's no film. So I said, "you know what, I'm just gonna show the Blu-Ray". Because I felt like I wanted the experience for the audience to be as close to what it was like when that film came out as possible, and that meant that those color sections had to be shocking. Like, "oh wow, this gorgeous black and white is now vivid Technicolor". And that's not gonna happen with a faded print. You're left trying to imagine what they intended. I'd rather show you, as close as possible, what they intended.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Humoresque (1946)

Screen capture from Warner DVD.
WHO: Joan Crawford and John Garfield star in this.

WHAT: Another film I've yet to see and am excited to. Here's what Noir City festival honcho Eddie Muller had to say about this film when I interviewed him last week (but couldn't fit into my Keyframe article):
I could argue that Humoresque is Joan Crawford's best performance. What interests me about it is it's not Joan being Joan. She plays a very different character, very vulnerable, and trying to be a big woman and kind of failing and breaking down. It's really dramatic. She's just great in it and I think I said in my notes something along the lines of that it's one of those Hollywood movies where you can see every calculated thing in it, just how archly melodramatic the whole thing is, and it doesn't matter. It's almost like its incredible theatricality is what makes it so emotionally affecting. It really is a powerful film. And to see Hollywood go all out in a film about classical music in both of those movies, it's like Hollywood treating classical music like there's no higher art form in the world. And to see the special effects, and how they make John Garfield a musician with very complicated effects that aren't in the camera. These are physical effects that are just extraordinary. Garfield is a multi-armed character when he's playing, you know: one arm belongs to somebody and another arm belongs to somebody else. Unbelievable. You honestly can't tell.
WHERE/WHEN: Today only at the Castro Theatre, with showtimes scheduled at 3:50 and 8:45.

WHY: There's a tendency, when viewing films in pairs, as the hardcore denizens of Noir City do this week thanks to its double-feature format, to compare one film against the other as if they're in competition. I do the same thing myself sometimes, as when I say things like "Rear Window is a better movie than The Public Eye, but I preferred seeing the latter Friday night because its 35mm print looked a lot better than the Rear Window DCP did." It's more fruitful to consider the ways a pair of films can build upon each other, deepening both viewing experiences, as the colliding of two films about ethically questionable Manhattan photographers did for the opening of the Noir City festival.

Last night's pairing of pitch-black noirs from Argentina and Sweden, Fernando Ayala's The Bitter Stems and Hasse Ekman's Girl With Hyacinths, is another example. These films were clearly not just chosen to be together because they're both extremely pessimistic, because they both tangentially fit into this year's "Art of Darkness" Noir City theme, or because they're both featured in recent or upcoming (New York City) MoMA retrospectives. All of the above is true, but is overshadowed by the films' fundamental connection despite being made six years and over eight thousand miles apart from each other: both films are obsessed with their nation's neutrality during World War II. This is something I'd enjoy writing about in much greater depth (after a second viewing of each film, too, ideally). But for now I'm just going to avoid talking about which of the two films is "better" than the other, as I overheard many do as I left the Castro last night, and focus on the ways each film strengthens the other in my memory as I think about them a day later.

On the heels of that, it seems funny to comment on today's double-bill of musician-themed melodramas featured on the cover of the gorgeous program book available only to Castro attendees this week (and a reason alone for noir-loving shut-ins to buy at least one ticket to the festival). I believe it's the first time Noir City has paired a Joan Crawford film (Humoresque) with a Bette Davis one (Deception) on the same double-bill. Going way back to the second Noir City festival in 2004, there were three "Crawford vs. Stanwyck" double-bills that year (this year Barbara Stanwyck appears separately, in tomorrow night's The Two Mrs. Carrolls), but the famous history of the Davis/Crawford rivalry really invites the audience to make today's pairing into a competition (perhaps especially so on a day when spandex-clad gladiators compete for a trip to Frisco Bay next week). Just a reminder that this might not always such a productive way to view movies, as one can be appreciated without having to be "better" than the other one...

HOW: Today's films are both screening in 35mm; according to the aforementioned program book, all upcoming Noir City screenings are expected to employ 35mm prints except for The Picture of Dorian Gray, which screens from a Blu-Ray, and Corridor of Mirrors, The Red Shoes, and Blow Up, which screen from DCP.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Public Eye (1992)

WHO: This film was shot by cinematographer Peter Suschitsky. who was the Director of Photography on The Empire Strikes Back as well as on films for Peter Watkins, Tim Burton and M. Night Shyamalan, but who is probably best-known as David Cronenberg's regular cinematographer since Dead Ringers in 1988.

WHAT: I haven't seen this film, beyond a few short clips and enough of the uncharacteristically monochromatic opening credits, which feature photographs by Arthur Fellig a.k.a. WeeGee, the renowned New York photographer of the 1930s-1960s.  Joe Pesci plays a character based heavily on Fellig/WeeGee. I recently spoke to Eddie Muller, who programmed this film as part of tonight's Noir City festival opening. and had this to say about it:
I'm not gonna say that it's a modern classic or anything like that but there are parts of it that are absolutely spectacular. Mostly the stuff that captures WeeGee at work. That's what is just fabulous. Where he's driving around New York to Mark Isham's score, and he's finding things to photograph. It also fits the theme of this festival perfectly because it's about a newspaper photographer who believes he's creating art. There's a gimmicky crime plot and all this nonsense with Barbara Hershey being threatened by these gangsters, but that's just defined to follow this other thread which is about the difficulties he has having people take his work seriously as art.
WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight only at the Castro Theatre at 9:30 PM.

WHY: The "theme of this festival" Mr. Muller speaks of above is "The Art of Darkness", this year's organizing principle for Noir City, providing excuses to show two dozen films about morally questionable painters, writers, curators, dancers, musicians and filmmakers as well as photographers. Although Muller makes a strong case for photography as a particularly cinematic artistic medium in an excellent, brand-new podcast interview on the Cinephiliacs which touches on several of the same topics as my own just-published Keyframe Daily interview article with him: film restoration, his days as a student in George Kuchar's San Francisco Art Institute class, etc. Muller gives a great interview, and since quite a bit of what we discussed didn't fit into my Keyframe article, I plan to publish more excerpts from our talk over the next several days as Noir City unfolds. Stay tuned.

I'm excited to see The Public Eye tonight, although I wouldn't be surprised if a number of Noir City diehards are feeling more skeptical about the festival's first-ever full-color opening night double-bill (and closing day, come to think of it) and might be tempted to skip tonight in order to catch the Stanford Theatre's weekend presentations of Casablanca and Gilda in 35mm, or the Rafael's 35mm showings of (non-noir, but a big-screen must see) Foreign Film Oscar frontrunner Son Of Saul, which after Sunday is expected to screen digitally, as it's showing in every other Frisco Bay cinema despite its director's preference for 35mm presentation (which I agree with, especially for the format's tendency to exacerbate the disorientation of the opening moments). Because you don't want to miss anything screening Noir City on Saturday or Sunday, right? Especially not Saturday night's international noir showcase. But I'm lucky to have seen Casablanca, Gilda and Son of Saul in 35mm, twice apiece, so I'm ready, willing and able to start following Muller's art theme at the beginning and, hopefully, do my best to follow it to the end next weekend when it closes with 1960s photographic subversions Peeping Tom and Blow Up.

HOW: The Public Eye screens on a double-bill with Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Rear Window. The Public Eye will screen from a 35mm print. I'm not certain about Rear Window's format.