The 12th Annual Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival unfolded this past weekend in the dry heat of Palm Springs, California, and the cool atmosphere of the Camelot Theater on Baristo Road. Though I had to miss the first two days of the four-day event, I managed to get seven films of various quality under my belt by the time the lights came up Sunday evening. Here’s what I saw.
The Big Heat (1953)
From where I sat, this Fritz Lang-directed film was the best of the festival. It starred Glenn Ford as a tough cop on the trail of a crime syndicate. Along the way, wife Jocelyn Brando gets blown up in a car, gangster’s moll Gloria Grahame gets a pot of hot coffee in the kisser and Lee Marvin menaces everything in his path. Ford is magnificent, and Grahame gives the proceedings a hell of a lot of zip. Peter Ford, son of Glenn Ford and Eleanor Powell, was on hand to discuss his father’s career and sign copies of his recent book, Glenn Ford: A Life.
The Face Behind the Mask (1941)
This performance deserves to be on the short list of Peter Lorre’s best. Here he plays a Hungarian immigrant in New York City with dreams of being a successful watchmaker. The course of his life is changed by an apartment fire that disfigures him and makes him an outcast to all except the criminal underground, where, little by little, he begins to find his niche. A mask to hide his facial burns and a pretty girlfriend (Evelyn Keyes)—who conveniently happens to be blind—softens his outlook for a while, until she gets blown up in a car (again with the car bombs!) and so begins his tragic slide. Written by blacklisted writer Paul Jarrico, the film has a running time of a mere 69 minutes.
The Great Gatsby (1949)
It was to be Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney as Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. When producers thought Tierney too beautiful for the role, in stepped Betty Field, who was definitely not as beautiful as Tierney (few women are) but a crack actress nonetheless. With no Tierney, Power dropped out and so Alan Ladd became the title character in this dark, loose version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s jazz-age tale. The feel is decidedly 1940s, however, and for those of you wondering if this qualifies as noir, in director Elliott Nugent’s version, it most certainly does. Macdonald Carey, Ruth Hussey, Barry Sullivan, Elisha Cook Jr. and Howard de Silva (who appeared in both this version and the 1974 one with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow) round out the cast. And in this picture, as in many of her movies, Shelley Winters dies a particularly gruesome death.
Hell's Island (1955)
What kind of movie runs its climactic scene under the opening credits? This odd duck does, then embarks on a long flashback leading up to the moment when John Payne gets popped a 22-calibur in the shoulder. Payne is a former cop hired by a wheelchair-bound ne’er-do-well to find a ruby that disappeared in a plane crash in the Caribbean. The actor is his usual reliable self, but his romantic sparring partner, unfortunately, is played by Mary Murphy—a femme about as fatale as a prom queen, going from bland to shrill with no shadings in between. This the third pairing of Payne and director Phil Karlson, having previously collaborated on Kansas City Confidential (1952) and 99 River Street (1953). This is also the rare noir that was filmed in Technicolor as well as in Paramount’s then-new wide-screen format VistaVision. Alternately titled South Sea Fury, the picture has yet to be released on DVD. The grainy, faded print was provided by the UCLA Film Archive.
The grand dame mannerisms that seep into many a Joan Crawford performance are nowhere to be found in this psychological drama. Crawford impresses as a woman obsessed with Van Heflin, a man who’s a real pal but doesn’t love her. She enters a marriage of convenience with Raymond Massey while continuing to pine for Heflin in a most unhealthy way. Madness and an act of violence propel her to roam the streets of downtown Los Angeles, where she is picked up and examined by a doctor and his very cute assistant. Crawford was nominated for her second of three Oscars for this role; her first was for Mildred Pierce (1945) and her last was for Sudden Fear (1952). She won for Mildred Pierce.
The Prowler (1951)
Originally called The Cost of Living, the film was produced by Sam Speigel (under the name S. P. Eagle) and John Huston, who wanted to showcase his wife, actress Evelyn Keyes. This was reportedly Keyes’s favorite role, but, even in the stylized world of film noir, I found her to be inauthentic and actressy. Directed by Joseph Losey and written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, it’s a tale of corrupt cop Van Heflin having an affair with Keyes, whose husband has a radio show. While he is on the air, Heflin and Keyes embark on a romance that leads to a killing and an unwanted pregnancy. Heflin gives a strong performance, and the arid environs of the Mojave Desert are shown to great effect in the last third of the picture.
Road House (1948)
Whenever a movie shows the front page of a newspaper to indicate what happened to one of the lead characters, see if you can catch the smaller headlines. I did it a lot this festival and “Farm Bill Approved by Legislature” shows up more frequently than not. Such an opportunity presents itself in Road House, about a love triangle gone wrong with a sublime Ida Lupino as a lounge singer, a slimy Richard Widmark as her boss, hunky Cornel Wilde as Widmark’s right-hand man and Celeste Holm as his faithful right-hand woman. My first impression of the movie was that the projection was all wrong, as when people watch old movies on their new wide-screen television without adjusting the aspect ratio. Road House had that look—stretched so Lupino’s face and Wilde’s rump looked wide and fat. In spite of this distraction (and some rather implausible plot developments), the story is well performed and suitably tense. And for those who’ve never heard Lupino sing, her three numbers may prove to be your bonanza. “She’s something, ain’t she?” the bartender remarks, to which Holms replies, “If you like the sound of gravel.” The more discriminating ears among us may side with the latter sentiment.