Thursday, February 2, 2012

Film Noir Fest X: Hammett's Day

Elizabeth and I managed to cross the Bay this last Sunday to attend a segment of the last day of Noir City Film Fest (or Noir Fest X), the annual noir film festival, produced and hosted by the one-and-only King of Noir, Eddie Muller, accompanied by the mellifluous burr of Bill Arney, and all under the decorative vaulted ceilings of the legendary Castro Theatre.

Noir Fest started the year I left San Francisco for East Bay and I somehow never made it over to attend, but this year, with my own 1920s noirish novel Butchertown in the pipe, I decided attending would be an entertaining, helpful and inspiring duty.

This was especially pertinent as the last day was dedicated to three double features of films based on the work of noir’s Ür-author Dashiell Hammett, whose Red Harvest  I count as one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read.

The day opened with two rarities, both of which we passed on: Roadhouse Nights, an alleged adaptation of Harvest that is said to depart so greatly from the novel as to be both unrecognizable and not very good, despite being penned by Hollywood’s great Golden Age screenwriter, Ben Hecht.

The other was the first version of The Maltese Falcon (1931), whose static and stiff presentation—typical of many early sound films—I’d suffered through once already at the Roxie some years back. Aside from silvery swaths of lingerie draped suggestively all over this pre-Code production, I recall it being pretty much Snooze City, with Ricardo Cortez’s Sam Spade making Humphrey Bogart look even more like Humphrey Bogart.

The second double feature—the one we caught--consisted of a couple of other true rarities, based on stories that Hammett wrote specifically for the movies (though he never got to write the screenplays).

In 1930, according to Vince Emery’s book Lost Stories, Hammett, sailing fast and high on the success of The Maltese Falcon, sold a story called “After School” to Paramount Pictures. Later it was retitled “The Kiss-Off.” Later it became . . .

City Streets (1931), a gangland romance beautifully directed by Rouben Mamoulian with gorgeous cinematography by Lee Garmes. It’s a boy-meets-girl story with Sylvia Sidney as a gangster’s daughter who takes a shine to an aw-shucks sideshow sharpshooter, played by young and handsome Gary Cooper (who so reminded me of Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, I’m calling for a re-do of Morocco).

Things get a little silly when Coop joins the mob and trades his cowboy duds and drawl for derbies, fur-lined coat, and a tough guy sneer out the side of his mouth. The ending also lands a little fuzzily, leaning on a mild humorous reversal instead of a tense, bang-up climax we might expect. Still, Sidney is excellent and the movie also features oily unctuous Paul Lukas and genial Guy Kibbee. It’s definitely worth fixing your eyes on.

The second feature was an obscure low-budgeter titled Mister Dynamite, released by Universal Studios in 1935—so obscure, that Eddie Muller ruefully admitted to the audience he hadn’t seen it yet either and said the Universal Studios vault was amazed that anyone would even ask for it.

As told by co-presenter, publisher Vince Emery, Mister Dynamite started as a nail-tough, hard-boiled Sam Spade-style screenstory called “On the Make,” commissioned from Hammett by Warner Bothers producer Darryl Zanuck, who subsequenty turned it down.

Some years later, with his name bubbling in lights again thanks to The Thin Man novel and film, Hammett pulled “On the Make” from the trunk and took it to Universal who said yes . . . BUT—that ever-looming Hollywood BUT--they wanted something soft-boiled, namely another Thin Man (thus has Hollywood always been, boys and girls). They paid Hammett, sent him on his way, and brought in two screenwriters, Doris Malloy and a comedy writer named Harry Clork  (nope, not a typo) to write them up their Thin Man copy.

As the curtain rose and the name “Harry Clork” rang in my ears, I whispered to Elizabeth, “I fear this will be painful.”

But, wouldn’t ya know it . . . I was wet! Not all wet, but pretty damp. Sure, it was a thin paste-up of The Thin Man but Mister Dynamite turned to be a surprisingly entertaining and bubbly charmer thanks to its sparkling string of wisecracks and peppery rapport between Edmund Lowe, as the Sam Spadish/Nick Charles-ish hero, Thomas N. Thompson (“T.N.T.” nudge-nudge) and Jean Dixon, a wonderful stage actress (and Sarah Bernhardt protégé), as Lowe’s long-suffering but always on-her-game secretary.

Despite the movie’s low-budget production and C-supporting cast, cheery applause clattered to ceiling as the curtain fell at the end of this crowd-pleasing pip. In its humble fashion, it was the surprise of the day.

As for the mysterious Harry Clork, IMDB claims he was also the writer of such classics as Tea for Two and Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki. Glad I didn’t know that going in.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.


Julie Schauer said...

good to hear what you and Elizabeth are up to! Say hi to your phenomenal other half!

Thomas Burchfield said...

I sure will! Thanks Julie!