Posted by Moira Finnie on May 12, 2010
Asking Elliot Lavine to talk about his favorite film noirs is a little like asking a parent of many different children to describe what he loves about his babies. If you are anywhere near San Francisco in the next few weeks, you may want to hightail it over to the newly remodeled Roxie Theater in the Mission district for a chance to admire some of his neglected favorites–Elliot‘s nearly forgotten, “cheap, lowdown and tawdry” stepchildren, consisting of 28 rarely screened B noirs from the Poverty Row Studios. These movies will be on display from Friday, May 14th through Thursday, May 27th in a program entitled I STILL Wake Up Dreaming: Noir is Dead! / Long Live Noir! A complete list of these movies is posted at the end of this blog with links to the Roxie for times and ticket information. A few days ago, Elliot was kind enough to submit to a grilling from me about all things film noir…
For many of us who have come to think of him as a friend, Elliot may be better known as Dewey1960, the funny and big-hearted cinephile on the TCM Message Boards, who has become a font of information and insight into the world of film noir, as well as pre-code films. In the real world Elliot Lavine is actually a film scholar who has taught at Stanford University, San Francisco State and UC Berkeley.
From 1990 to 2003 he was also the programmer at the Roxie Theater and was instrumental in putting that theater on the map of repertory houses. Lavine‘s penchant for unearthing a range of once obscure has proved infectious. After guest curating a similar event for the Roxie last year he has been invited to do so again this May. Many of the movies he has chosen came from the Poverty Row studios that struggled to make a profit–and in the process, these movies often pushed envelopes, developed themes and nurtured new and neglected creative talents. Fortunately, I was recently able to catch up with Elliot long enough to ask him a few questions about his upcoming festival. The movies that he has unearthed for this festival are worth going out of your way to see, and, fortunately for us, several of them have been broadcast on TCM in the past and may be again. While most of these movies were regarded as a disposable form of cheap entertainment when they were first made, the themes dealing with eternally troubling subjects such as identity and freedom, crime and punishment, fate and longing, revenge and fear have persisted in the power they have on our imagination.
Over the course of these two weeks in May during this festival, Elliot will follow up last Spring’s sold out similar event by offering attendees a chance to see six of Columbia Picture’s Whistler series in newly restored 35mm versions and projected on the big screen, some for the first time since the 1940s.
Seen on TCM in recent years, (and celebrated by my fellow Morlock RHSmith in a memorable 2008 post), the Whistler movies were based on the popular radio program of the same name that ran from 1942 to 1955 which featured an unseen narrator who introduced each story but was only seen on film as a shadow, like fate shadowing the character’s lives. Like the radio show, the movies feature stories with ironic twist endings that were often bleakly satisfying in a fatalistic way, but might end in an occasional, unpredictably upbeat manner as well. Nearing the end of his long career, one time ‘A’ picture leading man, Richard Dix, who began in Hollywood in the silent era, alternated playing heroes and villains in several of these haunting B films. Among the gems in this series will be Mark of the Whistler (1944), based on a story by Cornell Woolrich (as are several of the Whistler stories). Several were also directed by that future master of mid-century ballyhoo William Castle, who also directed the sixth entry in series, Mysterious Intruder (1946), just two of the six of the series playing during this event.
The series also highlights United Artist’s excursions into noir with six newly restored 35mm prints of their films, including director Phil Karlson’s vividly memorable, but rarely seen, 99 River Street (1953), featuring John Payne as a disheartened (and self-pitying) boxer turned cabbie whose dreams have gone awry. Director Jacques Tourneur’s prescient cold-war thriller The Fearmakers (1958) is also among these films, starring noir icon Dana Andrews as a troubled Korean war veteran who learns of the sinister side of lobbying long before Jack Abramoff became a household name. (Please note: 99 River Street (1953) can currently be seen online at Hulu.com)
Elliot has also unearthed B-noirs that are unavailable on commercial DVD, borrowing 16 mm prints from private collectors. These rarities will include Jealousy (1945-Gustav Machatý), a story of love, death, and regret among European emigres adrift in wartime Los Angeles that features a notable cast, including John Loder, Nils Asther and Karen Morley. George Sherman’s The Lady and The Monster (1944), based on Curt Siodmak’s legendary novel Donovan’s Brain and featuring the cinematography of the justly legendary John Alton, the man noted for “painting with light,” will also be a highlight of this part of the program.
M: Thanks so much for consenting to share your enthusiasm and knowledge of this subject, Elliot. Did you become enamored of film noirs as a boy or an adult? What first appealed to you about them?
Elliot: When I was a boy, nobody really discussed these movies as a unified style of filmmaking. By the time I was in my early 20s I had become completely transfixed by black & white films. My attraction to crime pictures (the type we now refer to as “film noir”) was pretty natural as these were the films that fully maximized the full-bodied potential of monochromatic cinematography. When I moved to San Francisco in the mid 1970s it seemed like there was a repertory movie house on almost every corner and it was possible to see films like Out of the Past, Kiss Me Deadly, Detour and so many other great 40s and 50s noirs practically on a daily basis. And since this was the pre-VCR era, terrific B pictures, many of them bona fide poverty row gems, would air on the late, late show on TV all the time. Exposure to unusual film entertainment was rampant!
M: How did you first become a film programmer?
Elliot: Quite by accident, really. Back in 1990 I was “between jobs” and found myself doing freelance copy writing around town. The Roxie (in San Francisco) hired me to write their film calendar blurbs and before long I wound up programming films that were drawing big crowds. The owner of the theater (Bill Banning) offered me a job as programmer and there was no turning back. Prior to that I had no experience whatsoever doing this sort of work. Funny how things happen.
M: I noticed that the Roxie is reportedly the oldest movie theater in San Francisco. In the time that you have been involved in programming movies for revival theaters in the Bay area and around the country how has the situation of such movie houses changed? What do you think contributed to the changes you have seen?
M: Have the audiences changed very much in the years in which you have been programming?
Elliot: Oh sure. Audiences, what’s left of them, seem to be at a loss as to how to actually behave in a public theater. Younger crowds in particular seem to be clueless about movie theater etiquette. There really was a time when the majority of people who ventured out to the theater acted as if it truly was a privilege to be there; film-going was special, a unifying experience unique to itself. Today it seems like nothing more than a time-killer for most people.
M: How did you find the very rare films that you’ve included in this upcoming two-week programme?
When I did our “Best of Columbia Noir” program last September at the Roxie, we played the first film in that series, The Whistler (1944) which at the time was the only title available in a 35mm print. The crowd reaction was tremendous and the folks at Sony took notice. Based on the overall positive performance of the Columbia series, Sony very graciously and generously consented to strike new prints on six of the seven remaining Whistler titles. From a theatrical standpoint, these films are extremely rare, all but forgotten in fact. They’ve never even been released on VHS or DVD.
I was also very interested in playing a number of United Artists titles from the 50s that have never been released on DVD. It was really a matter of approaching MGM (who controls the theatrical rights to these United Artists films) and simply asking about their availability. Much to my shock and delight, they already had existing 35mm archive prints on titles like The Fearmakers (1958), Cop Hater (1958), Shield for Murder (1954), Nightmare (1956), Johnny Cool (1963) and 99 River Street (1953). So having these important and incredibly rare features in the mix is no less a thrill than playing the Whistler films! The remaining 16 films in the series represent some of the scarcest titles in the noir universe. And they come in the form of 16mm prints from the personal library of a local collector.
M: What was involved in readying these movies for projection at the Roxie?
M: What criteria did you use when deciding which films to include?
Elliot: Ultimately it boiled down to scarcity. When talking with film noir junkies, certain titles eventually come up in conversation. Like, when will we ever see High Tide on the big screen? Or, what’s up with Shield for Murder? Why no print on that one? Things like that. True fans of film noir know what they want to see. My job is to find as many of them as I can. Certain films are likely to never see the light of day in a 35mm print. So scoring a 16mm print on a rarity like High Tide, The Glass Alibi (1946), or Lighthouse (47) is something you have to jump on when the opportunity presents itself.
M: Is there something about the Poverty Row B film noirs that makes them distinct from other noirs of the same period?
Elliot:They’re definitely more subversive since they seem to have been produced with such a casual air of disdain for what the censors imposed on bigger budgeted films. You get the feeling with so many of these Poverty Row films that studio interference was simply not something that factored into the birthing of them. Noir is such an interesting style of filmmaking, one that caters specifically to our own personal dreamscape. Films that consciously choose to inhabit such barren terrains, devoid of fancy fineries, often come closer to approximating the truly deranged nature of the themes so commonly explored in film noir. They genuinely belong to the region of the id.
Elliot:They did because they could. Take a film like Ulmer’s Detour (1945), for many the quintessential Poverty Row noir. Would a big studio have ever
A film about an abject loser, consumed by negativity and self-loathing and a miserable wretch of a woman who spend the bulk of the film’s sixty-nine minutes either grousing at one another in a seedy hotel room or photographed in a car against the endless backdrop of a rear-projection machine. Of course not. Why would they? It must have been really refreshing for some of these writers, directors and producers to be able to work without the type of restraint forced upon their loftier cohorts over at MGM and Paramount. Once the era of the so-called “second feature” became a fixture in the industry, a sub-strata of moving picture entertainment emerged which was diametrically different from the mainstream studio product we so affectionately refer to as “classic Hollywood film.”
M: I noticed that there were plotlines in several Poverty Row B noirs, such as High Tide (1947), in which a trapped character is in jeopardy as the tide comes in and Behind Locked Doors (1948) about a man who pretends to be insane. These circumstances were later repeated in more high profile (and larger budgeted) films such as Jeopardy (1953) and Shock Corridor (1963). Do you think that these later movies were indirect homages (or outright steals) from the more obscure movies?
M: How do you think that the movies you have included in the Roxie extravaganza influenced more mainstream movies?
Elliot:I’m not sure that they actually did, but if that were the case, then perhaps they inadvertently inspired mainstream hacks to try to do more with less. Most of these B films, especially the hardcore Poverty Row titles of the 40s, were treated pretty condescendingly by reviewers and industry flacks in their day.
M: Despair over the tragedy of WWI, fascism and communism certainly played a role in creating a vast pool of talent in Hollywood composed of European émigrés. Are the influences of this disillusionment as well as a familiarity with German expressionism, surrealism and edgier artistic waves evident in any of the movies you have included in this event?
Elliot:The overwhelming majority of them seem to be pre-occupied with the inescapable consequences of Fate. The conditions you describe in your question certainly point to an unrelievedly fatalistic worldview, don’t they? Take The Whistler films. Drenched in shadows, steeped in irony, these sixty-minute exercises in futility give the distinct impression of a world gone mad, driven by desperation and uncertainty. Very much like the world of the 1940s, particularly for those whose lives were directly affected by the horrors of war and fascism. A lot of these Bs don’t even look as if they were produced on this planet, let alone this country.
Elliot: Ironically, it was a very unsophisticated one. Ironic because today so many of these wicked little films are adored and doted on by cinephiles. But the vast majority of these films originally played either out in the sticks (the ‘nabes as they were once called) or the downtown grind-houses. We’re looking at a time when many folks were eager to find an hour’s worth of cheap entertainment to conveniently fill a specific void. Swing-shift workers, down-and-outers, the bored, the restless—you name it. A relatively undemanding but steadfastly loyal audience you might say. I really doubt these Poverty Row producers had any delusions of grandeur about the films they made or who might be paying their two-bits to see them.
Q: What role did the Production Code play in the production (and neglected status) of these movies? Were any of these movies particularly controversial when released and why?
Elliot: I’m not aware of any specific controversies surrounding any of these films, but I think it’s safe to say that, for the most part, the Production Code had little if any impact on the production of Poverty Row films. Apart from the obvious pitfalls like nudity and profanity, limits were obviously stretched with respect to what has been termed the “moral tone” of a film. Amorality ran pretty rampant in so many of these low-rent films with characters exhibiting the type of behavior that the Code would have frowned upon in bigger, more “important” pictures. There were exceptions to this, of course; big studio productions like Out of the Past (1947), Double Indemnity (1944), and Nightmare Alley (1947) all come to mind, but most of the top-line “A” budget films from the major studios pretty much toed the line.
Elliot: Ideally it’s the most important consideration, that precious commodity once described by the critic Myron Meisel as “the primacy of the visual.” He used that expression when discussing the work of Edgar G. Ulmer, the mad poet of Poverty Row who generally managed to invest each of his godforsaken projects with enough visual panache to satisfy a dozen more expensive films.
The new program at the Roxie shows off the work of an interesting group of cinematographers who are less known by name than some of their more illustrious counterparts. Guys like George Meehan and Philip Tannura who, between them shot a number of The Whistler films, the best ones in fact. Meehan shot Mark of the Whistler (45, from a Cornell Woolrich story) and Voice of the Whistler (1945), one of the moodiest and saddest noirs of that decade.
Tannura, who shot Mysterious Intruder (1946, a Whistler picture) also shot Night Editor for Columbia, released the same year, in 1946. And L. W. O’Donnell, who photographed Power of the Whistler (1945), also shot the classic Monogram noir Decoy (1946). In all of these films, the visual style and energy run high; it’s a masterful group of B noir.
I really enjoy films shot by Franz (or Frank) Planer. His work here on director Phil Karlson’s 99 River Street (1953) makes it among the most stunningly realized noirs of the 50s, rivaled only by Kiss Me Deadly (1955-Robert Aldrich), Touch of Evil (1957-Orson Welles) and The Big Combo (1955).
Above: A stunning shot of an ominous ship at dockside photographed by Franz Planer for 99 River Street (1953) blending a matte shot with a real location.
Planer also shot Max Ophuls’ Letter From An Unknown Woman (48), Robert Siodmak’s incredible Criss Cross (1949) and Arthur Ripley’s cult Poverty Row noir The Chase (46), a fascinating slice of noir from the mind of Cornell Woolrich. Based on Woolrich’s novel, The Black Path of Fear, this darkly romantic movie features a malevolent Steve Cochran, a sardonic Peter Lorre, with Michelle Morgan and Robert Cummings as doomed lovers on the lam. (The Chase can be seen here on the Internet Archive).
Cinematographer Sam Leavitt is responsible for two of the films in this series: Jacques Tourneur’s excellent The Fearmakers and the Rat Pack era noir Johnny Cool (1963-William Asher) with Henry Silva in the lead. Leavitt‘s résumé is hot; including A Star is Born (1954-George Cukor), Cape Fear (1962-J. Lee Thompson), Advise and Consent (1962-Otto Preminger), Sam Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1959) and the mind-blowing Brainstorm (1965), one of the great unsung later noirs, directed by William Conrad and not to be confused with the 1982 Natalie Wood film. (A DVD on demand of Brainstorm can be purchased through the Warner Archive here)
The clip below gives an impression of the über-hip and ultra-nasty ambience created by Henry Silva and Elizabeth Montgomery with a big boost from Sam Leavitt‘s subjective point of view black and white cinematography in director William Asher’s Johnny Cool (1963):
And for those who insist on the best, John Alton is along for the ride with his ultra beautiful Lady and the Monster (1944), a sci-fi horror noir hybrid which was based on the novel Donovan’s Brain, written by Curt Siodmak, Robert’s brother. (The image below shows the moodily lit Erich von Stroheim in The Lady and the Monster).
Elliot: Of course it’s always exciting to see Janis Carter in action; she’s featured in two of these Whistler films (Mark of the Whistler and Power of the Whistler) and she’s wonderful in both of them.
Left: Carter, one of the best, and least known of the femme fatales of film noir, is seen at left in all her scheming blonde splendor.
Lee Tracy has always been a favorite actor of mine and High Tide (1947-John Reinhardt) is probably his only bona-fide noir film, and it came fairly late in his career. It’s a film I’ve been chasing after for a long time. Another interesting and very seldom discussed actor who’s featured in a number of films in this series is Don Castle, who toiled on Poverty Row for several years before drifting into television production work. He made a number of excellent B noirs for Monogram (including High Tide). Castle is on display in three other films here as well: The Invisible Wall (1947-Eugene Forde), Lighthouse (1947-Frank Wisbar), and Roses Are Red (1947-James Tinling)—all released in 1947. John Payne is an actor I’ve always enjoyed and his work in noir films is exemplary. And Edmond O’Brien is simply one of the most prominent figures in the always expanding spectrum of noir. Having Payne and O’Brien sharing a double-bill together in this series (99 River Street and Shield for Murder) is certainly a highlight for me.
Below is a brief clip of Edmond O’Brien in all his sweaty glory, acting up a storm as an all too human cop on the skids in Shield For Murder (1954):
Q: I was not aware that Edmond O’Brien both starred and directed in Shield for Murder (1954). Why did O’Brien tackle both tasks? Did he hope to make the transition to behind the camera permanent?
Elliot: I don’t know why he did, apart from probably just wanting to, but we’re all the better for it. Shield for Murder is tough meat and ranks as one of the most seriously neglected noirs of the 50s. In fairness, he co-directed it with Howard W. Koch, who was responsible for three little known terrific noirs, The Girl in Black Stockings (1957), Big House, USA (1955), and The Last Mile (59). O’Brien directed only one other film, Man Trap (1961), an excellent wide-screen noir with Jeffrey Hunter.
M: Jeffrey Hunter in a film noir! Now I know I have to find a copy of Man Trap!! I noticed that many of the films you have chosen include early work by directors such as Andre de Toth with Dark Waters (1944), and Budd Boetticher with Behind Locked Doors (1948). Both seem more appreciated now than they were in their lifetimes. Do you have a particular affection for certain directors and would you consider yourself an auteurist?
Elliot: I do favor the auteurist theory, mainly because I think of the director as the ultimate author of the film. The components are all equally vital but all run the risk of being misused in the hands of an uninspired director. For me it’s automatic; I think of the director in the exact same way as I think of their films. Nicholas Ray, Jacques Tourneur, Fritz Lang, Edgar G. Ulmer, Hitchcock, Welles, Fuller and countless others seem to be synonymous with the films they made.
M: I see that you have included The Glass Alibi (1946), directed by W. Lee Wilder (the legendary Billy Wilder‘s brother) and starring a man who knew all about the noir life, Paul Kelly, a very familiar and even beloved actor of that period. I realize that the more famous director expressed disdain for his pocketbook manufacturer turned director brother’s work, but do you see any of the famous Wilder wit and visual style in this movie? Does it give the veteran actor Kelly an opportunity to create a memorable central character?
Elliot: Billy’s brother W. Lee Wilder is generally reviled or, at the very least, ignored. He made a lot of uninspired junk, but he also made two very strong Poverty Row B noirs, one of them maybe even great: The Pretender (47) from last year’s program (and shot by John Alton) was one of the most popular re-discoveries from that program. Personally, I prefer it to his more famous brother’s heavyweight big studio noir Double Indemnity.
The Glass Alibi is probably a notch or two below The Pretender, but it’s still a remarkable noir. Having Paul Kelly in it helps quite a bit. That guy was great, and his personal demons (much like Tom Neal’s) made him one of noir’s most peculiar and poignant stars. But Wilder’s brother did his own thing, for better or sometimes worse: he also directed Manfish (1956), Spy in the Sky (1958), and Bluebeard’s Ten Honeymoons (1960).
M: I see that you have six restored prints of The Whistler movies. These haunting films afforded a showcase for Richard Dix at the end of his life, as well as giving such under-appreciated actors such as J. Carrol Naish an opportunity to shine. Do you think that these actors felt about this work? What do you think it was about this radio show turned movie series that reflected the times in which they were made?
Elliot: Dix is a marvel in these Whistler films, demonstrating a calm control that’s very disturbing given the nature of his particular villainy in them and it’s a great pleasure to be providing such a showcase for him in this series.Richard Dix had a remarkable career in film and these unpretentious Whistler films were literally the last ones he made.
In fact, the last film he finished before taking on this series was The Ghost Ship (1943) made for producer Val Lewton at RKO. In many ways that film was like a dry run for the Whistler films, a taut, eerie tale with Dix playing a seriously demented character. It seemed like the perfect segue. And yes, the Whistler films did provide an opportunity for many fine character players to take on much meatier roles than the bigger films they appeared in offered.
Second-string actors and actresses like Barton MacLane, Porter Hall, Karen Morley, Regis Toomey, Mike Mazurki, Leslie Brooks, and Paul Guillfoyle all turn in wonderfully complex performances in these films and I’m sure they were all grateful for the chance to stretch out a little in films that relied more than somewhat on their presence in them. The Whistler, both in its radio and film incarnations must have struck a seriously deep psychological chord with many people. The haunted nature of the premise—a faceless, shadowy guide luring us into a sick netherworld of deception and murder (punctuated by a twist ending), more often touched by the supernatural and playing off the fears and anxieties of a world at war was, in may ways like a precursor to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, exploiting similar concerns to those whose fears about the atom bomb would keep them awake at night a generation later.
M: While some of us cannot be present for this two week-long revel in darkness, I hope that you and any attendees will share your impressions of the event here. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on planning this festival of uncommon film noirs, Elliot.
Please note: Some of the films mentioned in this blog are available online and a few are also available on DVD or VHS, though many are not commercially available. If this year’s I STILL Wake Up Dreaming event at the Roxie is a success, perhaps Sony, Columbia and other copyright owners will be more likely to issue these movies on DVD.
I STILL Wake Up Dreaming: Noir is Dead! / Long Live Noir!
The Program at The Roxie Theater May 14-May 27:
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