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Noir City Seattle closes with wicked women

To start at the end, the final film of the now fabulous "Noir City" festival in Seattle, closing out a solid week of non-stop black-hearted delight, was "Wicked Woman" (1953) -- arguably, the purest 'noir' ever made. This was billed along with Fritz Lang's far more famous and far more arty "Scarlet Street" (1945), and the contrast between these two striking studies in wickedness is almost as striking as the films themselves. To start with, Lang was a very European "art director" and "Scarlet Street", is very much an Art film -- yes, with a capital 'A'. "Wicked Woman", on the other hand, is straight American B-movie trash, but ... what marvelous genuine trash!

Of course, judgements such as "arty", "trashy", "genuine" and pure”. depend a lot on how one defines a film noir, and there are almost as many definitions as there are definers. In my book a true "noir" has to be a low budget production, usually churned out on the quick (often, but not always, at one of the less glossy studios), as a 'B' picture on the bottom half of a twin bill as a "warmup" for a bigger 'A' picture, or a throwaway to fill seats on slow week-day nights with a less respectable viewership. Such films, aside from the usual checklist of "distinctive features" -- tough dames (preferably blondes), naive suckers who get in over their heads with these tough dames, lots of slapping around and other violence, smoking guns, steamy kisses, cynical rat-a-tat dialogue, a dim view of settled middle-class marriage, lots of night scenes, high contrast lighting, and a generally amoral view of life -- in order to qualify as a genuine film noir cannot contain big film stars (although there are borderline cases such as Edward G. Robinson and one or two others), and cannot be overtly intellectual, as most Fritz Lang pictures tend to be -- or otherwise tailored to meet middle-class values and morality.

"Scarlet Street" (Universal, 103 minutes) starring, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea is very much a companion piece to Lang's other 'darkie', "Woman in the Window", 1944, which also starred Robinson, Bennett (with Duryeain a small roleas well). It looks noir, it sounds noir, and it even feels a liitle noir, but except for that indelible Dan Duryea (whose slam-bang pimp is its main claim to noirness) just is not "noir" enough. An excellent psychological study of a middle aged man (Robinson) stuck in a terrible marriage, who falls head over heels for a beautiful hooker with disastrous results, it is -- a fascinating melodrama, and all that, yes, but noir it ain’t, and, for the following reasons --

First of all, Joan Bennet is much too classy to play a noir anti-heroine, while Edward G. is on the border -- a certain darkness in his soul, true, but basically aclassy top-drawer dramatic actor a bit too theatrical here to qualify for noir. (The ending where he goes bats and hears voices is strictly from German Expressionism, far too arty for "noir"). Secondly, the screenplay is much too brainy for a noir, (the obvious parallel for art History buffs, between Robinson, the unschooled weekend painter, and French post-impressionist “primitive” painter, Henri Rousseau), and some of Bennett's dialogue, reflecting on Edward G's weekend art work had me thinking, "Hm -- this gal must have gone to Vassar before she became a hard-boiled hooker".

Bennett is indeed lovely to look at, but she’s far from the ideal noir blonde-bombshell image (she was, in fact, often compared to Hedy Lamar in the forties as the ultimate Brunette Beauty of the time) and, although she was a very competent actress, casting her as a hard-as-nails whore under the pimpship of Dan Duryea was definitely pushing the envelope to attract the
respectable "A" movie audience. Given the glossy Langian context she does
pull it off, but you can see her acting a mile away. Duryea on the other hand doesn’t act – he’s just there, in the totally decadent pimpish flesh!
And, compared to the just about unknown Beverly Michaels in “Wicked Woman ..
well, we’ll get to that in a minute.

Overall, "Scarlett Street" is a thinking man's psychodrama, but its inclusion in noir is open to question -- which doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the hell out of it -- however, to me it was only a warmup for the main shot of the entire festival, "Wicked Woman", (United Artists, 1953, 77 high explosive minutes) which closed the whole week out in a blaze of a-moral blackness, with slim, towering, platinum-blonde bomb shell, Beverly Michaels (aptly described in the notes as "a stick of female dynamite"), simply chewing up the scenery and everyone else in sight -- male or female! This supreme noir actress makes Joan Bennett look like a girl scout by comparison.

The minute she steps off that Greyhound in the opening scene we know we're in for trouble. When she checks into a ratty rooming house with strictly low-life denizens it already starts, fighting over the use of the bathroom, and especially with the runty bald creep across the hall, the inimitable fidgety, pudgy, balding slimeball, Percy Helton. When she quickly saunters into a job as a barmaid it doesn’t take her five minutes to vamp on the handsome bar owner (Richard Egan) and snare him in her web before the bleary eyes of his alcoholic wife. (Shades of “Postman always Rings Twice” in reverse). Soon she’s got him talked into selling the place (and she’ll have to pretend to be the wife and forge her signature to pull this off), ditching the wife and running off with her to Mexico.

"RUNT RUNT RUNT!!!

When Percy next door overhears her plotting and tries to blackmail her into having sex with him, she, towering over him by half a torso, disdainfully calls him a “runt”, whereupon he indignantly retorts, “Don’t you dare call me runt" -- whereupon she literally explodes with the words; “RUNT, RUNT, RUNT !!!” -- possibly the most blatant put-down ever seen on a silver screen. And the way she wipes her hand off on her nightgown after it has been greedily pawed by Percy is sheer noir genius. However, she does spend the night with him to shut him up ... talk about unscrupulous! Although nobody actually gets killed in this film, it feels as though everybody is getting killed all the time, and the tension in the lawyer's office signing the bill of sale for the bar is so thick you can cut it with a knife.
Though posing as Egan's wife she isn't wearing a ring and we can see that, but the lawyer and buyer are so bowled over by her looks they fail to notice ... Excellent direction here by Russell Rouse who also penned the bare bones perfect screenplay with one of Occam's razors.

The reason I call this "pure" noir is that it pulls absolutely no punches, has the perfect no-name cast, the perfectly compact scenario, the absolute absence of anything resemling any kind of moralit, and performances so perfect it looks like the actors just walked in off the street and started making the story up as they went along. As for Beverly Michaels ... this is the Scarlett O'hara of Noir. After seeing "Framed", in which Janis Carter so heartlessly drags Glen Ford down the drain, I nominated her for the all-time Best Actress Oscar of Noir Award. now, after "Wicked Woman" I must respectfully ask Janis to move over to make some room for Beverly -- as the best beyond-acting actress and the Wickedest Woman of All-Noir-time. Let's make that a "Lifetime Award" for Michaels, as she is rumored to be still around, hiding out somewhere in Arizona. When she got back onto that Greyhound at the end of "Wicked Woman" with just enough cash to get halfway to nowhere on a one-way ticket, you just knew she would start vamping all over again the minute she got there. She actually starts right on the bus revealing a long well-turned leg to a scruffy salivating male passenger ...

Too bad they didn't make any sequels; "Wicked Woman" II, III, or "Wicked Woman Rides Again" -- What a waste of wickedness! -- and Percy Helton gets the all-time Slimeball Award. Even though he oozes oil from every pore and rubs his hands together like a house-fly perched on a sugar cube, he does so with such practiced aplomb that you can't help loving him for trying every ploy in the book just to get into Beverly's hot pants once. Richard Egan was the letter-perfect noir leading man because, while handsome enough and virile enough to be an "A' movie lead, he was much too wooden and transparent an actor to make the "A' list -- in films of this kind, however, with no high-art pretensions -- made to order. "Wicked Woman" (along with DOA, 1950) is the letter-perfect film noir down to the last 't' -- the kind where the addition or subtraction of a single frame would lessen the impact.
Numerous thumbs up! (Incidentally, WW is so obscure it even listed in
MALTIN)

Among other films, the only disappointment of the entire week was "I Love Trouble", Columbia, 1948, 93 min. starring Franchot Tone (argh) as a wisecracking private eye and Janet Blair as his main clutch, plus a whole bevy of other treacherous dames, interchangeable one with the other, except for the always impeccably evil Janis Carter with adopted foreign accent (which she abruptly drops late in the fil.) . The very muddled screenplay by Roy Huggins (supposedly a homage to Raymond Chandler) coupled with the pitifully miscast Tone as a soft-boiled detective combine for a very sludgy and slow moving 93 minutes of the kind you can't wait till it's over so you can get to the Kim Novak flick topping the bill. This was directed by someone named Sylvan Simon who is thankfully long forgotten.

"PUSHOVER", Columbia, 1954, 88 min., directed by Richard Quine (Never on VHS or DVD) -- is a dark thriller, again scripted by Huggins, who again pens a pretty murky plot, lifted over the rough spots by the star power of Fred MacMurray and the voluptuous milky-skinned Kim Novak in her screen debut.
What is interesting here is that usually good guy MacMurray plays a cop who is so thoroughly corrupt -- through and through -- so disgusting that he kills his own detective partner to cover up his sticky tracks. You're really glad when he ends up riddled with bullets smirking in a parking lot.
Kim is not too believable as a gangster's moll but she's such a knockout that belief is easily suspended. John Ireland is one of the sinister heavies in the shadows. A user comment on IMDB describes this as "More a suspense film than a film noir", which I would go along with -- about halfway. An interesting side role is Dorothy Malone as the girl in the apartment next door, in an uncharacteristic "good girl" role. Also known as:" The Killer Wore a Badge" , which is far more apt as a title than "Pushover". (Another movie connection: This film was featured in “Los Angeles Plays Itself”, 2003).

Another highlite of the week was "Nightmare Alley" (FOX, 1947, 110 minutes) starring Tyrone Power Fox's perfect "pretty boy" top star, playing a phony carnival "mentalist" (mind reader) and general lout whose fall from grace is so total that he ends ends up as the carnival Geek -- eating raw chickens for the amusement of the crowd. Described as "One of the bleakest and most audacious 'A' movies ever to emerge from Hollywood", Power here followed up his sensitive searcher "Larry Darrell" in "The Razor's Edge" (1946) with this highly counter-to-image role which he personally considered to be his best work -- the critics as well. The next year he was back as a dashing romantic in "Captain From Castille" but his geek in "Nightmare Alley" gave the word a new life -- as in "Bill Gates, Computer Geek".

One important parting shot: An integral part of the Noir-City presentations are the pre-screening introductions by Film Noir Foundation co-founder, Eddie Muller. When he's wearing his black suit and shirt Eddie looks like he could have just stepped out of a noir himself, and he has the knack of conveying his enthusiasm for the genre in a way that is so lively, amusing, and informative, that these intros become part of the show itself. His knowledgability of the subject -- actors, directors, writers, cameramen, trends and trends-within-trends, trivia and not-so-trivia -- is so profound that attending a series of Noir-City films is something like taking a crash course in this brand of cinema from the guy who wrote the book (and Mr.
Muller HAS written several books on this subject!). Since film noir has now become something of a hot subject and offers a treasure trove -- almost bottomless -- of historical film entertainment for buffs and novices alike, festival programmers hoping to fill a few houses with an interesting sidebar during a long festival run, would do well to contact the Film Noir Foundation and the "Czar of Noir", Eddie Muller, directly.

Alex Deleon
Queries and comments (even dirty rotten ones) may be addressed to me as
follows:
Eddie Muller, “Czar of Noir” can be reached at:



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