Saturday, June 7, 2014

Silent Noir, Holy Noir

The 2014 San Francisco Silent Film Festival has finished and some moments of reflection are in order. In recent years, the musical elements of the festival have become almost as important as the films being screened.

While this may have been the first year that no organist was hired to accompany silent films on the Castro Theatre's beloved Mighty Wurlitzer, one very important change should be applauded: the addition of a percussionist to the festival's roster of musicians. The talented Frank Bockius provided a welcome enhancement to the films he accompanied. I can only hope he will return on a regular basis.

I always find it interesting to note how the festival's program is divided up into certain categories:
Kate (Norah Baring) tries to frame Bill (Brian Aherne)
in a scene from 1928's Underground

The festival also attracts a surprising number of top-quality restorations of silent noir films from around the world. In 2014, the top three selections (from Britain, Germany, and Japan) easily confirmed the festival's motto that "True Art Transcends Time."

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To help mark the 150th anniversary of the London Underground (which includes the world's first underground railway system), in 2013 the British Film Institute unveiled a magnificent restoration of a 1928 film by Anthony Asquith, appropriately entitled Underground. As one watches this film, one becomes acutely aware of how the sharply angled noses and physical imperfections of many silent film actors laid the foundation for Norma Desmond's classic remark that "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!"

Asquith's film treats London's subway system as a microcosm in which all types of people are thrown together on platforms, escalators, and in railway cars as they attempt to travel from one part of London to another. Asquith's four main characters include:
  • Bill (Brian Aherne), a porter employed by the Underground who tries to make sure people keep moving safely and in an orderly fashion as they ride a set of steep escalators.
  • Bert (Cyril McLaglen), a disgruntled worker at a London power station whose tortured ego and manipulative skills make him think that he is irresistible to women. A better word to describe Bert would be "stalker."
  • Kate (Norah Baring), a lonely seamstress who has a crush on Bert and lives in the same boarding house. Starved for affection, Kate makes the mistake of believing Bert's sweet talk and fails to understand that he is merely using her to take down Bill.
  • Nell (Elissa Landi), a pretty young shop girl being stalked by Bert, who has attracted the attention and romantic interest of Bill (a born rescuer).
Cyril McLaglen (Bert) and Brian Aherne (Bill) in a scene from
Anthony Asquith's 1928 silent film, Underground

Asquith's direction pivots from a cat-and-mouse game into a tense thriller after Bert manages to disable the electricity at the power station where he works. Many have compared the film's final chase scene at the power plant  to the famous chase scene through the British Museum which was created by Alfred Hitchcock for 1929's Blackmail.

In her program note, Monica Nolan states that:
"Asquith frames, lights, and shoots Underground with the style and verve of a young cinephile drunk on German cinema's expressionistic mise-en-scene and Soviet cinema's rapid-fire cutting. Directing on his own for the first time, Asquith lets loose with all the visual and technical ideas he had soaked up in his years of filmgoing. With German lighting designer Karl Fischer, he created the ominous angles and exaggerated stair-rail shadows that frame the seduced and abandoned Kate, while the film's mobile camera and rapid pacing are clearly an homage to German and Soviet cinema."
Asquith brings a lot of humor to his film simply by observing the wide variety of humanity that rides the Underground. The following sequence (in which two people "meet cute" on a set of escalators) is a classic. With Stephen Horne accompanying Underground on piano, this screening proved to be an utter delight.

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Subways may travel from one end of a city to another, but their passengers include people from all levels of society. Most cities (especially busy ports) have a different kind of underground -- the slums and parts of town where the lower class lives.

1929's Harbor Drift begins with a well-dressed man relaxing at an outdoor café as he alternates between scanning the day's newspaper and looking under the table at a woman's high-laced boots. His attention is drawn to a story about a drowning in which the corpse of an elderly man was found clutching a string of pearls.

Harbor Drift's director, Leo Mittler, didn't give his characters proper names. Instead, he assigned his actors to portraying stereotypes of societal low-lifes. These include:
  • The Sailor (Friedrich Gnaß), a macho type who hangs out in dive bars looking for a fight or a woman.
  • The Beggar (Paul Rehkopf), an impoverished man who lives on a decrepit houseboat. He spends most of his time playing records on a portable music box while hoping that passers-by will drop some coins into his hat. One day, while begging on a busy street, a woman's pearl necklace breaks and falls to the sidewalk. With a quick move, the beggar snatches up the necklace in the hope that he might be able to get good money for it at a pawnshop
Paul Rehkopf is a beggar in 1929's Harbor Drift
  • The Landlady (Margarete Kupfer) rents rooms out to working women (whose income depends on the kindness of strangers).
  • The Receiver (Sig Arno) often acts as a fence for stolen goods.
  • The Prostitute (Lissy Arna) notices the beggar pocketing the string of pearls and plots to acquire them for her own gain.
A prostitute (Lissy Arna) and a "receiver" (Sig Arno)
discuss a possible business deal in 1929's Harbor Drift

The person who brings all of these people together is The Unemployed Man (Fritz Genschow) who has been looking for work while crashing on the beggar's houseboat. One night, while in a dive bar, he gets into a fight with the sailor and gets taken home by the prostitute (whose landlady warns her against letting men spend the night for free).

Fritz Genschow is an unemployed man in 1929's Harbor Drift

As an ocean liner enthusiast, I got an extra thrill during the screening of Harbor Drift from the sight of two Holland America Line sister ships from the 1920s whose hulls had been painted white for cruising: the SS Volendam (1922) and SS Veendam (1923).

Holland America Line's SS Veendam

Harbor Drift was accompanied by Stephen Horne (on piano, flute, and accordion) and Frank Bockius on percussion. The following clip offers some rare footage from Harbor Drift.

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By 1933, most American film companies had converted to talkies. But in Japan, silent films were still being made because audiences were used to the kind of communication that could be understood with visual cues as opposed to language. An early Yakuza film by Yasujiro Ozu entitled Dragnet Girl was introduced at the festival by Eddie Muller (President of the Film Noir Foundation), who described it as falling right in line with the type of noir films that featured James Cagney and Joan Blondell.

Joji Oka as a handsome gangster in 1933's Dragnet Girl

With some stunning cinematography by Hideo Mohara and many visual gags, Ozu's film contains two surprising LGBT subplots. In one, a gangster's moll takes a liking to the woman she suspects has attracted his roving eye. In the other, a young student and aspiring pugilist is attracted to a handsome gangster. There's just one problem. Although the gangster's moll may be an excellent typist, she's also the psycho bitch from hell.

Kinuyo Tanaka as Tokiko in 1933's Dragnet Girl

Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) may be employed as a secretary, but her main interest lies in robbing her boss. Her boyfriend, Joji (Joji Oka) is a handsome gangster who likes to hang out at pool halls, seedy bars, and boxing gyms.

Complications quickly arise when the aggressive Hiroshi (Kōji Mitsui), a young boxer, shows an eagerness to become a gangster and starts to draw Joji's attention. While there is a strong undercurrent of a homoerotic attraction between the two men, the only solid evidence that Hiroshi is gay comes from his sister, Kazuko (Sumiko Mizukubo), who keeps trying to get her kid brother to "go straight." Whether Kazuko means for Hiroshi to abandon his gangster ambitions or find himself a nice Japanese girl is subtly implied.

Hiroshi (Kōji Mitsui) and another student
shoot pool in 1933's Dragnet Girl

In his introduction to Dragnet Girl, Muller pointed out how most of the signs around the boxing gyms were written in English (and there was even a poster advertising an appearance by Jack Dempsey). Accompaniment by Guenter Buchwald (who created an extra-jazzy soundscape on piano and violin) managed to include a few bars of "Bei Mir Bistu Schein" during a sequence at a dance hall. Although the quality of the print seen below is nowhere near as crisp as the one that was screened during the Silent Film Festival, you can watch Dragnet Girl in its entirety on YouTube.

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