Arts Listings

Film Noir Festival Brings Cinema’s Dark Side to the Castro

By Justin DeFreitas
Thursday January 21, 2010 - 09:40:00 AM
Dick Powell struggled to break free of what he called the “eternal juvenile” persona of his early 1930s Warner Bros. musicals, and eventually forged a second career in such dark dramas as Murder My Sweet and Cry Danger (above).
Dick Powell struggled to break free of what he called the “eternal juvenile” persona of his early 1930s Warner Bros. musicals, and eventually forged a second career in such dark dramas as Murder My Sweet and Cry Danger (above).

An “eternal juvenile” no more, Dick Powell finally broke free of the battery of baby-faced roles he endured in a seemingly endless series of bright-eyed 1930s Warner Bros. musicals. With middle age fast approaching, Powell struggled to carve out a new identity for himself, jumping ship from one studio to another in search of a new career path. 

Eventually he succeeded. Two examples of Dick Powell born again will screen this weekend as part of Noir City, the annual film noir festival at San Francisco’s Castro Theater. This year’s theme is “Lust and Larceny” and there is plenty of both throughout the 10-day series, which kicks off Friday with Pitfall, featuring Powell and Lizabeth Scott, and continues through Jan. 31. Powell appears again in Cry Danger, showing Saturday, Jan. 23. 

In an effort to shed his boyish Warner Bros. image, Powell bought out his contract and signed with Paramount, only to bolt again when the studio denied him the lead in Double Indemnity. Soon enough Powell signed with RKO, and landed the plum role of shamus Philip Marlowe in the Raymond Chandler adaptation Murder My Sweet. 

This breakthrough role was followed by more in the same vein: dark, hard-bitten dramas with a world-weary edge, a distinctly American genre to which French critics would ultimately give the name. Powell parlayed his second wave of cinematic success into a couple of radio gigs as well, including one of his signature characters, the private detective Richard Diamond. Powell was even secure enough by this point to include a nod to his earlier persona, finishing each episode by crooning a tune to his paramour. 

It was at this time that Powell made one of his best, but least-known films, Cry Danger. Powell plays a sardonic, embittered ex-con, determined after five years in the pen to set a few things straight. Dry, drunken, down-on-his-luck Richard Erdman is along for the ride as a battle-scarred ex-Marine angling for a payday as reward for getting Powell out of prison. 

Cry Danger showed at Noir City a couple of years ago, and though it was a murky 16-millimeter print—the only print available at the time—it was a crowd-pleaser. The evening was made all the more entertaining by the presence of Richard Erdman, who proved himself every bit the charismatic wisecracker even in his 80s. This year, the film screens in a brand-new 35-millimeter print, a rare opportunity to see this acerbic crime classic in peak condition. 

In addition to Powell, this year’s program pays tribute to festival favorite Richard Widmark with a Jan. 29 double feature. Slattery’s Hurricane shows Widmark in one of his early leading roles, firmly establishing the persona that would sustain him through several classics of the genre: tough, jaded, maybe a bit sleazy, but with a kind of weary decency waiting to shine through. Second on the bill is the Samuel Fuller noir masterpiece Pickup On South Street, with Widmark as an underworld conman, a pick-pocket who lives by his wits. Widmark seduces Jean Peters and plays the commies and the feds against each other while knocking back beers chilled in the icy waters beneath his shabby dockside shack. 

The festival is full of rarities, films not available on DVD, many not available even on VHS. Another seldom-seen gem is Human Desire, one of director Fritz Lang’s better American films. Adapted from Emile Zola’s novel La Bete Humaine, Human Desire is melodrama of love, lust and betrayal amid the freightyards of Philadelphia. Glen Ford plays a soldier just back from the Korean War who wants nothing more than to settle back into his life as a railroad engineer, with time to fish, catch a movie, or even step out with a nice girl, if he can find one. What he finds however is Vicky, played by perennial film noir femme fatale Gloria Grahame, whose marriage to Broderick Crawford is teetering on the edge of a spectacular collapse. 

Lang had a checkered career in Hollywood, with neither the resources nor the autonomy he enjoyed in his pre-war German career. But Human Desire shows him in fine form, employing the intelligence and artistry that characterized his silent and early sound-era masterpieces. Long stretches pass artfully without dialogue, and the sights and sounds of trains, railroad tracks and freightyards are used to excellent effect, keeping the drama taut while filling the screen with compelling imagery. 

Other highlights of the festival include Larceny, a dizzying melodrama of twists and turns centering around greed, corruption, and of course, dangerous dames; Marilyn Monroe in Niagara and Asphalt Jungle; A Place in the Sun, an adaptation of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift; Escape in the Fog, in which a nurse is haunted by a dream of a murder committed on the Golden Gate Bridge; and an evening entitled “Bad Girls of Film Noir,” featuring “poor man’s Marilyn Monroe” Cleo Moore in a double bill of One Girl’s Confession and Women’s Prison. 


Noir City 

Friday, Jan 22 through Sunday, Jan 31 at the Castro Theater, San Francisco.