Thursday, January 28, 2010

Bad Girls at the Castro

Last night I had the opportunity to attend an evening of the eighth Noir City film festival, at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Wednesday's theme was "Bad Girls Night." I was not disappointed.

The evening kicked off with One Girl's Confession (1953), a crime-tinged melodrama, by Hugo Haas, a B-Movie auteur in the 1950s. He specialized in potboiling stories of fate and irony, usually featuring a bombshell in the lead role. He was an actual auteur, writing, producing, directing and sometimes starring in his films. He has been compared to Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Plan Nine From Outer Space) because of his often-lurid, low-budget dramas. This is unfair: I think he is more of an Ed Wood who managed to keep it in his pants, and thus enjoyed, for a time, a healthy relationship with the studio distribution system.

Confession is the story of Mary Adams, (played by Cleo Moore, a sort of poverty-row Marilyn Monroe) a luckless waitress who steals a large sum of money from her boss, confesses and gets sent to jail. When she gets out, she bides her time, waiting for the right moment to dig up her fortune. Meanwhile complications both professional and romantic ensue, which force her to make a drastic decision which seals her fate. Quite entertaining: it worked well within it's limited budget, and had surprisingly witty dialog.

Women's Prison (D. Lewis Seiler, 1955) is more of an A picture, featuring the likes of Howard Duff, Ida Lupino, Cleo Moore (again!) and Warren Stevens (Doc Ostrow from Forbidden Planet). The titular women's prison is separated from the men's lock-up by a wall and run by a hard-nosed warden (Lupino). The joint is full of tough cookies, but they're all good-hearted women who look out for each other-- which makes this film very much unlike more lurid Women In Prison genre offerings like Chained Heat (d. Paul Nicholas, 1983). There is sadism aplenty, however, with the hard-nosed warden tormenting her prisoners, despite the attempted intervention of the kind prison doc (Duff). As things generally go down in this genre, things in stir get out of hand eventually, and it ends in a riot, with our heroic gal cons running amok, threatening the guards with pointy scissors.

I had a fine time with the whole thing. I co-wrote a Women In Prison film (sort of) and I took some comfort seeing how enthusiastically the audience reacted to a 55-year-old genre piece. And comparing our script with Women's Prison, I can see we hit all the marks, and then some.

I'd make a qualification that it is a bit of a stretch to call these films "noir." Confession was more of a melodrama, and Women's Prison had far too many perfectly nice, reasonable characters, both had upbeat endings, and neither had the moral cynicism and air of futility and hopelessness that embodies the best noir. This isn't a knock on the festival programming: there are only so many core-noir films like The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Asphalt Jungle or A Place in The Sun, so stretching out a bit thematically keeps the whole franchise from getting stale. But they were still wonderful, rarely-seen (not in DVD!) movies.

An aside: I managed to see George Steven's A Place In the Sun a few weeks ago on TCM. An amazing, artistically done, towering example of noir, with Montgomery Clift, Shelly Winters, and a supernaturally beautiful Elizabeth Taylor. A perfect example of noir's leitmotif of hopelessness, it's sense of doom kicks off in the first scene and steamrolls non-stop all the way to the end. It appropriately closes this year's Noir City festival.

It's been a while since I've seen a film in a art house, even longer since I've attended a double-feature (though those are de rigeur at the Castro) and even longer since I've seen a movie from a balcony seat. During the break at a festival-type screening there is a lot of shmoozing and photo-ops and other sorts of activity. But what struck me was the unusual perspective of looking almost straight down over the main floor of the auditorium during the entr' acte. The Castro was built in 1922, and the interior has been for the most part left completely original: Even neighborhood movie houses made back then had plenty of sweeping, dramatic architecture. The whole place was awash in reds and golds under a proscenium and curved ceiling of Baroque magnificence. But the auditorium floor was a bright constellation of blue-white lights-- iPhones, Blackberries, Droids, all manner of 3G phones all being blazed away on by the Festival's urban, hyper-connected audience. It was beautiful in a way, like an upside-down night sky.

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