Noir City DC 2021, Day 1
When you’re standing in line to pick up your Noir City DC passport at the AFI Silver and notice Eddie Muller walking straight down the sidewalk toward you, you know it’s going to be a great day. And it was. Here’s a brief whirlwind tour of the first day of Noir City DC 2021, which was also the first Noir City event in 20 months.
When Eddie appeared as a guest at our virtual library movie discussion on film restoration and preservation last year (link below), he mentioned that he’d give me a big hug the next time we saw each other. He is a man of his word. The hug’s not pictured, but thanks to Margaret (traveling all the way from Chicago) for snapping this pic.
At 2pm on a Friday afternoon, I didn’t expect a full crowd just yet, but was delighted to see several noir folks already there, including one of my favorite people in the world, Casey (Noir Girl), who instantly brightens any room she enters. (Thanks, Casey, for sharing some of your photos here!) I was also bowled over meeting people who had either watched my YouTube videos or seen me on Twitter. I can’t tell you what a great feeling it is to meet people in person who share this passion for film noir.
Okay, let’s get to the films.
City That Never Sleeps (1953), as well as all the other films at the festival, are taken from the newly revised and expanded edition of Eddie’s book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir. You can think of City That Never Sleeps as film noir with a magic realism flavor, or perhaps an extended Twilight Zone episode. I also like to think of it as a precursor to pictures like Short Cuts (1993) or Magnolia (1999), films in which loosely connected characters converge.
And who can resist William Talman, Marie Windsor, and a mechanical man? You can read more about the film here.
The Killer That Stalked New York (1950) easily earns the “Most Significant Film Noir of the Year” title. Evelyn Keyes stars as a diamond smuggler recently returned from Cuba, where she picked up more than diamonds. That’s right, she’s carrying - and spreading - smallpox. Not only that, she’s trying to evade the police. In his introduction, Muller described Columbia mogul Harry Cohn’s outrage that Evelyn Keyes didn’t look glamorous enough as smallpox began taking a toll on her body, yet Keyes delighted in the rare opportunity to look unglamorous. More about the film here.
Any film highly regarded by Martin Scorsese is going to be worth your time. My only regret is that before yesterday, I hadn’t revisited Force of Evil (1948) since I first saw it six years ago. Mob lawyer Joe Morse (John Garfield) knows all the ins and outs in protecting the people running the numbers racket. When Joe’s brother Leo (Thomas Gomez) refuses to take Joe’s advice – advice that will ruin Leo if he doesn’t take it – the consequences for everyone spiral down into a nightmarish hell the likes of which we rarely see, even in film noir.
You can certainly see the Scorsese influence throughout the film, especially in one scene in which a character urges one man to kill another. Force of Evil is a noir fantasy with unrealistic but superbly crafted dialogue that feels like reality, largely due to superb performances by Garfield and Gomez, an actor whose career was filled with superb performances. Muller focused on Garfield and director Abraham Polonsky, both of whom had fascinating stories which I don’t have the opportunity to go into right now, but do read up on them. (Hey, Dark City is a great place to start that journey.)
For a long time, I Walk Alone (1947) was a very difficult film to see. Because it was so hard to access, Muller wasn’t able to give it much attention in the first edition of Dark City in 1997, but in the expanded version the film gets its due. Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster) and Noll “Dink” Turner (Kirk Douglas) were partners in bootlegging during Prohibition until one night during a smuggling run, the two are forced to split up rather than get caught together. Turner escapes, but Frankie gets caught, serving 14 years in the joint while Turner expands his business, building up a small diversified empire. After serving his time, Frankie confronts Turner for the 50% they agreed on years earlier, but Turner’s reply is, “Not so fast…”
Like Force of Evil, we see that noir is changing directions. The criminals are learning how to carry on their illegal activities under the cover of the law itself. Both of these terrific noirs opened up the door to other films that delve deeply into the gray areas of law and order, crime and punishment. This is a noir that deserves a larger audience. The film also features Lizabeth Scott, Wendell Corey, Marc Lawrence, and a face I always love to see, Mike Mazurki.
Okay, that’s a quick, rough and tumble look at the first day of Noir City DC. As I like to say, come for the films, stay for the people. I’m eager to see more films today and talk to more people like me who can’t get enough of this stuff. Maybe I’ll see you there.