Tuesday, September 8, 2009

An Embarrassment of Niches

For many people, San Francisco plays host to a cornucopia of specialized interests. Whether these cover the broad spectrum of political activism or sexual kink, there is literally something for everyone.

Rare is the San Francisco parade/demonstration that doesn't contain one group carrying signs for a cause that has absolutely nothing with the the topic at hand. I often wonder if this trend started back in the 1970s, when Gay Pride parades included groups like "The Order of Displaced Okies" and "Gays Against Brunch" (one marcher carried a sign insisting that "Toast Is Okay"). Unfortunately, the pick-up truck that carried a sad and silent group of "gay widows" decked out in somber black frocks was way ahead of its time.

As we brace for the onset of the fall arts season, it's interesting to examine how certain target audiences have been identified and developed by a wide variety of Bay area film festivals. For its sheer inventiveness and chutzpah, my favorite title of all time belonged to the now-defunct "EarthDance: The Short Attention Span Environmental Film Festival." While some events have disappeared from the annual arts calendar (no doubt due to the recent economic downturn), the following Bay area film festivals continue to draw enthusiastic audiences:

If that weren't enough to make a cineaste quiver on the brink of orgasm, there are also year-long film programs at such repertory houses and educational institutions as:
Just prior to the Labor Day weekend, I had a chance to preview three of the films being shown at the Roxie during the Best of Columbia Noir film festival. There are several things that I love about noir films. The music is often wonderfully cheesy. But these films also offer a chance to see styles and devices that were once commonplace in America. Whether one delights in seeing a wide variety of Art Deco, cigarette vending machines, vintage automobiles, or early pay phones and telephone switchboards, these films are often filled with nostalgic images.

* * * * * * * *
Although Dick Powell became famous singing and dancing his way into millions of hearts opposite Ruby Keeler in a series of movie musicals choreographed by Busby Berkeley, he later went on to star in, direct, and produce several grade-B films. His suave masculinity is on display in Johnny O'Clock (1947), which will be shown at the Roxie on Thursday, September 17.

In this film, Powell plays a slick playboy who is a partner with thug Pete Marchettis (Thomas Gomez) in a gambling casino. Living in a posh hotel suite where a handsome, young ex-con named Charlie (John Kellogg) serves as his valet, Johnny tries to give some sound advice to the lovestruck hat check girl, Harriet Hobson (Nina Foch), whose heart is being broken by rival gangster Chuck Blayden (Jim Bannon). Inspector Koch (Lee J. Cobb), who has been trying to keep track of Blayden, tries to get some information out of Johnny O'Clock but doesn't get very far.

Marchettis, who has just returned from a trip to Mexico, is being two-timed by his wife Nelle (Evelyn Drew), who has given identical -- although rare and notably expensive -- watches to the two men in her life: Marchettis and O'Clock. Even though the watch she offered to O'Clock has a special message inscribed on its back, Johnny has refused to accept her gift, stressing that there is "No sale." His note and the watch, however, are mistakenly delivered to the wrong person.

When Blayden and Harriet Hobson end up dead, Hobson's sister Nancy (Evelyn Keyes) arrives in town. A chorus girl who has been touring in a show, Nancy is one of those "on-again, off-again dames." Although she tries to put the make on Johnny O'Clock, time is not on O'Clock's side. He is soon betrayed by his valet, Charlie, and shot by his jealous business partner (who he has realized was Harriet Hobson's killer).

Based on a story by Milton Holmes, Johnny O'Clock was written and directed by Robert Rossen with cinematography by Burnett Guffey. My favorite moment comes when the hero needs to check on the status of Nancy Hobson's flight (which has been delayed by bad weather). He blithely dials a number from a pay phone and asks "Hello, Airport? What about Flight 4?"

They just don't write lines like that anymore!

* * * * * * * *
Many noir films remain sequestered in studio vaults and have yet to be released in digital format. From 1942 to 1955, The Whistler enjoyed a 13-year run as a radio mystery drama whose listeners quickly grew used to the program's introduction:
"I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes ... I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak."
The Whistler was brought to the silver screen in 1944 by William Castle, with a cast headed by Richard Dix (who, although he starred in seven "Whistler" movies, played a different character in each film). It will be screened at the Roxie on Friday, September 18. If the story seems oddly familiar, that's because the exact same plot device was used by Warren Beatty and his co-writer, Jeremy Pikser, in their brilliant political satire Bulworth (1998). See if this sounds familiar:

After his wife dies in an accident at sea, businessman Earl C. Conrad (Richard Dix) falls into a deep depression. He has trained his loyal secretary, Alice (Gloria Stuart) so that she can run every aspect of the company if anything should happen to him. Finding that he can no longer bear his own grief -- much less the accusatory looks of people who wonder how he managed to help others to safety but left his wife to die -- Conrad takes out a contract on himself.

Although he expects to be killed very soon and put out of his misery, the sudden changes in his mood and behavior mystify Earl's business colleagues. There's just one problem -- something has gone horribly wrong with the execution of the contract.

It seems that Lefty Vigran (Don Costello), the man Conrad was using as a go-between with the gunman, was murdered shortly after meeting with Conrad. Just before he died, Lefty had given Conrad's name and home address to a deaf mute accomplice (played by famed character actor William "Billy" Benedict) and instructed him to deliver the information to the killer (J. Carrol Naish).

Conrad, who has been suffering from increasingly severe bouts of amnesia, is not at his office when the news arrives that his wife was, in fact, saved by a Red Cross rescue ship and has been recuperating in China. When the news of her rescue finally reaches him, he can't find a way to locate Lefty and cancel the contract on his life.

Sitting in a bar, he strikes up a conversation with a sultry dame (Joan Woodbury), who turns out to be Lefty's widow. She's also stir crazy and, on the pretext of taking Conrad to Lefty's hideout, tries to kill him by driving at high speeds on a dangerous winding road.

Meanwhile, someone has given the killer a book about necrophobia. As he starts to read it, the killer becomes fascinated with the possibility of being able to kill someone without a trace of evidence. As a test case, he decides that he wouldn't have to kill Conrad if he could simply scare his increasingly paranoid victim to death.

The Whistler has plenty of unexpected twists, surprising turns, and suspenseful moments but, at the film's end, Conrad remains alive and well. As the sales pitch for the Cunard Line used to state: "Getting there is half the fun."

* * * * * * * * *
The poster for The Burglar led me to expect a fairly campy piece of grade-B trash but I was in for a major surprise. Written by David Goodis and directed by Paul Wendkos, this noir classic (which will be screened at the Roxie on September 27 and 28) benefits from some stunning cinematography by Don Malkames.

Shot in and around Atlantic City, The Burglar begins as a newsreel in which one segment hails the exploits of the mysterious Sister Sara (Phoebe Mackay), the head of a self-serving religious cult who seems to have made some pretty amazing acquisitions from wealthy people who have recently died. Among her recent "bargains" is a priceless necklace laden with gems.

The camera then pans back to show Nat Harbin (Dan Duryea), a professional burglar, sitting in the audience of a movie theatre. Several days later, a pretty young woman (Jayne Mansfield) goes up to Sister Sara's newly-acquired mansion and asks to meet the charismatic religious leader. Sister Sara invites her in for lunch and happily shows her around the place, unaware that the young woman is meticulously casing the joint for a gang of thieves.

Several nights later, as Nat and his partners Baylock (Peter Capell) and Dohmer (Mickey Shaughnessy) break into Sister Sara's mansion to steal the necklace, their operation is interrupted when two local policemen spot Nat's car. Once he has managed to talk his way out of a sticky situation, Nat goes back to the room with the safe, grabs the necklace, and the three men drive off (stopping only long enough to change the car's license plates). In a wonderfully funny shot, the camera looks out from the open safe and captures the moment Sister Sara realizes she's been robbed.

With their jewel heist all over the news (and the necklace having been seen in newsreels), Nat understands that he and his partners must lay low. However, Baylock is itching to take his share and leave the United States while Dohmer is eager to get his hands on young Gladden (Jayne Mansfield). While neither of them can figure out the strange relationship between Nat and Gladden, it's obvious that her presence is causing unnecessary tension.

When Nat suggests that Gladden spend some time by herself in Atlantic City, she is hurt but obeys his request. Shortly afterwards, Nat gets picked up by the sophisticated Della (Martha Vickers) who, along with her pal Charlie (Stewart Bradley), is plotting to steal Sister Sara's necklace from Nat and his crew. When Nat realizes that Charlie is the one of the cops who stopped him outside Sister Sara's mansion on the night of the robbery, he must race against time to save Gladden.

With two antsy crooks, a corrupt cop who's secretly wooing a naive blonde in Atlantic City, and a two-timing brunette, there is plenty of suspense to go around. Add in a diving horse and some other classic acts from the attractions at Atlantic City's Steel Pier, a tense cat-and-mouse chase sequence inside a spooky amusement park funhouse, and The Burglar delivers some surprisingly strong moments.

* * * * * * * *
Alas, on June 29, 1967, Jayne Mansfield (whose daughter, actress Mariska Hargitay created the role of detective Olivia Benson on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) died in a tragic automobile accident at the age of 34. According to Wikipedia:
"The car crashed into the rear of a tractor-trailer that had slowed down because of a truck spraying mosquito fogger. The automobile struck the rear of the semi tractor and underrode it. Riding in the front seat, the adults were killed instantly; the children riding in the rear survived with minor injuries.

Rumors that Mansfield was decapitated are untrue, though she did suffer severe head trauma. This urban legend was spawned by the appearance in police photographs of a crashed automobile with its top virtually sheared off, and what resembles a blonde-haired head tangled in the car's smashed windshield. It is believed that this was either a wig that Mansfield was wearing or was her actual hair and scalp. The death certificate stated that the immediate cause of Mansfield's death was a "crushed skull with avulsion of cranium and brain."

Following her death, the National Highway Transit Safety Administration (NHTSA) began requiring an under-ride guard, a strong bar made of steel tubing, to be installed on all tractor-trailers. This bar is also known as a Mansfield bar."
Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield

If you were not alive during the 1950s, you probably never got to see any of Mansfield's notorious cheesecake publicity stunts (she was a Hollywood sex goddess), television appearances, stage performances or films. If you've never had a chance to see Mansfield in action, here's a golden opportunity to "See Jayne Run."

No comments: