You’ve got to hand it Eddie Muller: Unlike the rest of us chumps who scrape by on peanuts, he’s figured out what the rest of us will never learn: He’s made crime pay.
And now Eddie’s making off with the goods once again, with the fifteenth annual Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City Film Festival, held at San Francisco’s legendary Castro Theater and hosted by Eddie. The 2017 fest runs Friday January 20 thru January 29.
Though the fence of time and space has kept me from regular attendance, a bump in income allows me to attend a few screenings this year. Eddie and the Foundation have provided another great lineup of gems. This time the theme is the “Big Heist”—the best-laid steals of mice and men gone agley, often fatally.
While I won’t be attending anywhere near all of them, I’ve seen quite a few and can wholeheartedly point to a healthy number of corkers and crowdpleasers in the lot.
The festival opens well enough with the Jules Dassin-directed Criss Cross from 1947, starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, both ashine with resplendent youth. Like many a noir, it’s about the things a guy will do for love. Lancaster is the love-befuddled sap to Gardner’s femme fatale, who’s attached to that perfectly slimy piece of toast Dan Duryea. You may find the ending a little weak as I did, but the build-up is terrific.
Better yet, the festival tops off its opening night with what some call the best of all heist films, The Asphalt Jungle (1951). From a W.R. Burnett novel, it’s true to its title as there’s not a whiff of nature to be seen anywhere until the unexpectedly moving ending in another of director John Huston’s many masterworks. I also like how it portrays the human violence unfolds in real life—randomly, stupidly.
The first Saturday matinee brings a little treat for fans of the character actors of the 1950s and 1960s in Kansas City Confidential (1953). Directed by Phil Karlson, it’s the story of a poor mug (John Payne) framed by criminal mastermind Preston Foster for a robbery he didn’t commit. Once out of the can, Payne tracks Foster down to a Mexican resort to get his justice.
The film’s best fun comes from the casting and performances by Foster’s gang of hapless miscreants: growling block-headed Neville Brand, sweaty, wall-eyed Jack Elam and, best of all to some, Lee Van Cleef, dispensing a bit with his great reptilian sneer to cheerfully play a self-styled Valentino named Tony Romano with humor, charm and skill. (You can read more about Van Cleef’s work in this film here and in my recent two-part profile of the actor in Filmfax magazine.) No doubt about it, it’s Bad Guy Heaven. Be seeing you there!
Winding up that Saturday afternoon is Violent Saturday, an offbeat thriller from 1955 about a gang of bank robbers (Lee Marvin, of course; Stephen McNally; and J. Carroll Naish) attempting to rob a small-town bank while trying to avoid entanglements with its troubled residents—sort of Peyton Place meets Richard Stark. Directed by a master craftsman, Richard Fleischer (The Narrow Margin) the film’s violence is quite blunt for its era. And Ernest Borgnine as an Amish farmer seems some sort of height in oddball casting.
While some pick The Asphalt Jungle as the best heist film ever, others will nominate Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) in that eternal debate. Dassin directed this after his exile from the United States during the Red Scare. French filmmaking benefitted thanks to the bringing of American skill and sensibilities to their genre movies. The heist sequence is the most exquisite ever as it unfolds without a word of dialogue, a perfect example of what Hitchcock called “pure cinema.” This or The Asphalt Jungle? It’s enough to split a guy’s heart in two.
The following Monday, January 23rd, brings The Killing, directed by a young Stanley Kubrick, from a script he cowrote with Jim Thompson (The Grifters). In addition to the terrific cast (Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook, Jr., Timothy Carey, Vince Edwards et al), you can also get an early look at Kubrick’s unique sense of space in widescreen format. Bay Area horse racing fans will also enjoy the scenes of long-gone Bay Meadows racetrack.
Tuesday night, the 24th, brings one of the best comedies in any genre The Ladykillers. (1955, which seems to be a watershed year for the heist genre) Produced by Ealing Studios and directed by Alexander Mackendrick (A Fish Called Wanda), it concerns a band of thieves who rent a hideout in which to plan their next heist. Unfortunately, they fail to account for their exquisitely caring and very nosy landlady. There’s Alec Guinness (with the greatest set of bad teeth ever), Peter Sellers and the underrated Herbert Lom. But all of them crumble before the adorable force of nature that is Katie Johnson. You owe yourself this one.
I haven’t seen The Sicilian Clan (1969) in years and due to the late hour of the screening (late Wednesday the 25th), I’ll be missing it again. It’s a very good example of the crime thrillers Europeans started turning to as the spaghetti western craze played out its freaky string. This one features Alain Delon, Lino Ventura, and Jean Gabin and was directed by the Turkish-born Henri Verneuil, the director of another nifty Euro-thriller called The Burglars. At their best, these films are as sharp and entertaining as any B-crime picture from the 1940s and 1950s. And there’s Ennio Morricone’s score, one of the best of his huge catalogue. I may not have seen this one in a long time, but I know its music by heart (and good luck at finding the soundtrack).
For crowd-pleaser of the festival, I nominate 1974’s The Taking of Pelham 123, one of the best New York thrillers ever, filmed against the gloriously scuzzy backdrop of 1970s Gotham. It features hangdog Walter Matthau, cold-eyed Robert Shaw, Jerry Stiller and a winsome Martin Balsam in a tale of a violent subway hijacking that comes down with a URI. It’s a perfect blend of laughs and thrills and is pure New York down to its bawdy bones. But hey . . . what d’ya want for twenty-five cents!? Take my word for it: see this with an audience!
Matthau returns yet again on the last Saturday matinee in Charley Varrick (1973), directed by genre legend Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, still a good movie even if you don’t like its politics). It’s a good two-fisted thriller: Matthau’s knockover of a small-town bank lands him in even deeper waters after he finds the bank was owned by the Mob. Good tough stuff as only directors like Siegel could pull off--the kind Hollywood studios cannot make anymore, even if they wanted to.
Immediately following Charley Varrick, comes Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, an offbeat tale of two crooks (Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges) and their lives on the lam. It’s one of the films credited with raising Eastwood’s profile among serious filmgoers, as well as Jeff Bridges, who’s also terrific here. The film was directed by Michael Cimino, whose subsequent work (The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate) seems to provide weight to the adage that success can ruin a man.
If you’ve ever wondered about the secret face of Mahatma Ghandi, you may get a real clue with Sexy Beast (2000), featuring the film embodiment of Gandhi himself, Ben Kingsley, the soul of yin and yang. He plays Don Logan, a mob enforcer of rabid ferocity who barks his way into the sunbaked retirement of ex-thief Ray Winstone, dragging, pushing and shoving him into pulling one more heist. Tense, funny, disturbing, seedy and stylish to a fault it, it also features Ian McShane as the big boss, a few years before his triumphant turn as Al Swearengen in Deadwood.
The festival closes with the last film in the distinguished career of Sidney Lumet, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead. It plays like a chamber piece, sort of The Asphalt Jungle meets Long Day’s Journey Into Night, as two brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) concoct a harebrained scheme to rob their parents’ jewelry store. A genuine air of pathos and tragedy suffuses the film, making it a fine coda to Lumet’s career. And, of course, any excuse to see the much-missed Mr. Hoffman is a good one.
Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield