I Wake Up Dreaming 2011, Roxie Theater, San Francisco May 13-26
(Adrienne Barrett in Dementia, 1955)
by Richard von Busack
Down with critics trying to sum up the themes and variations of a film festival when they could be talking about the movies themselves! (Blame editors looking for a big essay picture. Nice try, when life itself is nothing but a whirling void of chaos and decay.) I Wake Up Dreaming 2011 is a 13 day extravaganza of ebon-hued black and white B-movies: Some are utterly grindhouse. Some have once and future big name actors (such as Barbara Stanwyck, well-known to cinephiliacs as the most versatile actresses of the studio system era). Three Cornell Woolrich adaptations, three ultra-lowbudget movies about customs agents; the names Dan Duryea, Zachary Scott, John Alton and Robert Aldrich coming up repeatedly in 26 economical stories of thievery, murder, and blackmail.
Programmer Elliot Lavine takes the tiny and very urban Roxie Theater, on San Francisco’s 16th Street, and returns to its itch-house roots. starting Friday the 13th. This adventurous rep house was, once upon a time, a porn theater. Jim Mitchell told me he saw his first blue movie there: “I had a hard-on a panther couldn’t scratch!,” the noted pornographer shared. Today it’s part of a vital if sometimes seedy neighborhood, the perfect place to view these films from 1940-56: so obscure, so oblique, so loaded with chiaroscuro.
Phantom Lady (1944) (8pm)
The Cornell Woolrich/Robert Siodmak noir, not on DVD, about a dead wife and a prime suspect husband (Franchot Tone)…and it’s off to clubland to find out what happened to his alibi: the woman he was drinking with. Elisha Cook Jr plays a drummer het up enough to make Gene Krupa look like a Lawrence Welk percussionist.
Dementia (1955) (6:40, 9:45)
Like Menilmontant (1926) and Dali’s dream sequence in Spellbound (1945), this often disturbing early indie creates a world of Freudian disorder without dialogue. It concerns a long night’s rampage by a switchblade carrying demi-prostitute (played by the director’s secretary Adrienne Barrett, the large-eyed Minnie Driverish type). She has motive: mainly, the childhood trauma of her father’s alcoholism. The force of the law duplicates this paternal abuse; the same actor who plays her father also plays a grinning leering cop: note this was done ten years before everyone went bananas about a similar duplication in the hanging scene in In Cold Blood). The knife-carrying girl for hire goes to a fancy hotel (it seems to be the Shrine Auditorium, but I could be wrong) with a greasy tuxedoed trick, played by the Johnny La Rue-like Bruno VeSota. Things head south from there.
Among other things, Dementia is the second best movie made in Venice, California after Touch of Evil; William C. Thompson, photographer on Plan 9 From Outer Space does exemplary work illuminating this nighttown, night black but blazing with glaring spotlights. This one-and- done film by director/producer/writer John Parker has some first rate talent. Parker himself was the scion to a theater chain (his father, JJ built the palatial Broadway Theater in Portland, Oregon). He hired George Antheil, who did the soundtrack with solos by dubber-to-the-stars Marnie Nixon (doing her best to sing like a theremin, actually). Never better: VeSota, ambulatory ball of Gouda that he was (you wanted Welles, you’d settle for William Conrad, you got VeSota; he exec produced and also got his wife Jebbie a role as a daft flower girl. Dementia is so expressionist that the murdered millionaire rains dollar bills as he dies, like a ruptured piñata; the newspaper announcing The Gamine’s crime (MYSTERIOUS STABBING) plays at her ankles like a puppy, no matter where she wanders.
You could call it frank, or just blatant, but it was years ahead of its time. And like so many similarly ambitious films without a studio standing behind it, Dementia was marytred by the silliest kind of censorship. Scenes of a jazz nightclub, noted one grave authority, was “unhealthy for youth”. (Guest stars Shorty Rogers and His Giants have that effect on youth, even if they’re not as manic here as they are on The Man With the Golden Arm). It was released in a shorter version titled Daughter of Horror, narrated by Ed McMahon, who could have been a terrific late night horror host. This cut and narrated version was endorsed by an indulgent Preston Sturges; according to the notes on the Kino release, Sturges put out a letter stating: “It stimulated my blood, purged my libido”. Sturges might have gotten more stimulation and purging from the longer version, the perfect opener for a film festival of the depraved and deprived.
Ministry of Fear (1944)
(3:45, 7:45) Just as no good deed goes unpunished, no bit of good luck can be trusted. Just out of the mental asylum, a wanderer (Ray Milland) wins a cake in a wartime England where everything delicious is rationed. The pastry lands him in the clutches of a group of Nazi spies; so much for movies that are like a slice of cake. Elements of author Graham Greene’s Catholic guilt survive in this loose adaptation, but it’s Fritz Lang’s movie, no matter how Lang griped about studio interference. Here is his signature paranoia, guilt, pessimism, as well as the startling boldness of the final blackout…or almost total blackout…making this thriller worthy of its terrific title. Co-stars a Lang favorite, the snazzy, evil Dan Duryea (Scarlet Street, Woman in the Window)
Street of Chance (1942)
(2:15, 6 and 9:30) Cornell Woolrich’s “The Black Curtain” is the source of this murder mystery. Then theatrical actor Burgess Meredith, who had played Prince Hal to Orson Welles’ Falstaff in the 1930s, was on a studio sojourn. “I spent three years in Hollywood–another of my regrets,” he told Lillian Ross. Meredith is interestingly used for an Edward G. Robinson style part as a man woken up from an amnesiac life after a chunk of a building being falls on him; he’s helped by the nurse (Clare Trevor) of a rich and mute old lady. Director Jack Hively does it like the old days; in some antique double-exposure we can see what the prematurely wizened and morally uncertain Meredith is thinking about. The old-timiness works to the director his advantage: Under streetlights the size and shape of full moons, Meredith’s hero tries to track down “the me that’s inside” among the back lot sets: pawn shops, 50 cent a night hotels and a hammering 1890s piano throbbing like a migraine. The great bad-dream plot unravels. sadly, when it gets out into the country estate. But there’s regular shots of energy given by the ever-baleful Sheldon Leonard, as Meredith’s pursuer.
The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948)
(4pm, 7:30) Edward G. Robinson as John Triton, a vaudeville performer who has the ability to forsee the future: a gift that brings him nothing but horror. Compact at 81 minutes, and given tragic plausibility by Robinson’s own matchless gravity.
The Amazing Mr. X (AKA The Spiritualist) (1948)
(2:15, 5:45 and 9:15) From Eagle-Lion Blacklisted director Bernard Vorhaus and the master of the macabre John Alton collaborate on this story of a perhaps fraudulent medium.
(6:30, 9:45) Pleased with himself government agent Cliff Holden (Dean Jagger) goes on pursuit of a missing necklace. Posing as a trench-coated private detective, name of Harrah, Holden gets mixed up with a group of international thugs. Among them is perennial gallows-bird John Carradine as a dipsomaniac physician, and the exuberant hooligan Owney (Harry Landers), who amps up the often convincing violence. Their boss, the criminal mastermind Royal (Rene Paul) swans around in a smoking jacket, flaring his nostrils to suck up the smoke for the John Waters style “French inhale.” The script mixes pungency (a debate about whether there is actually such a thing as bad whiskey) with tautological hard-boiled (Royal is described as “slippery as a piece of wet soap”). C-Man starts to sit up and bark thanks to a number of things: plenty of Will Eisner-worthy cityscapes, littered with scurrying waste paper, as the agent wears out shoe-leather hitting the liquor stores south of Union Square.
A foolish professionalism is the hobgoblin of little movies. The point that Holden isn’t as competent as he thinks he is (leaving a $250,000 emerald necklace laying around in his crappy flat, for instance) aids the believability of this specimen of ashcan cinema. Who was this director Joseph Lerner? One of his other films, and there weren’t many, had champion boxer Joe Louis apparently playing himself as a crime fighter (The Fight Never Ends, 1949). Let’s presume that movie, too, had street scenes you couldn’t buy for money. Composer Gail Kubik once won a Pulitzer Prize for his classical music; he brings in an arresting dissonance that recalls Charles Ives. (Someone else on the internet says John Cage; let’s split the difference). The novel soundtrack leads up to a raucous, catchy rave-up of a nightclub scene. Special guest star: Lockheed Constellation #PH-TAW, bearing the livery of KLM’s “The Flying Dutchman”; the plane, essential to the story, was the then state of the art cross-Atlantic air transportation. (Ike’s Air Force One was also a Connie.)
Guilty Bystander (1950)
(8pm) More by the mysterious Joseph Lerner, once again prowling New York’s lousiest neighborhoods. Zachary Scott (Ruthless) is Max Thursday, a boozing hotel detective whose son is kidnapped. Based on a novel by H. William Miller, author of Kitten With A Whip. Whoever this Lerner person was, he had ears: the soundtrack for this inexpensive film is by Dimitri Tiomkin.
The Great Flamarion (1945)
(8pm) Based on a short story by Vicki Baum (Grand Hotel), this early low-budget film by Anthony Mann is based on the motto “Them that least deserves it, gets it.” A vaudeville trick-shot artist (Erich von Stroheim) has two human-target assistants: Al (Dan Duryea), a drunken cuckold; and his slutty wife, Connie (Mary Beth Hughes). Connie figures she can make some money out of her grim Prussian boss, who is weak enough to fall in love with her. Von Stroheim’s acting here is immaculate; his coldness does for this drama what Keaton’s deadpan does for his comedies. The authentic backstage atmosphere is convincing, as in such moments as Flamarion’s sinister-comic dumb-show act, which is about a vengeful husband with a pistol surprising his wife with another man. The slang’s savory, too; note the reference to the “grouch bag,” the vaudevillian’s stash of money (which supposedly gave Groucho Marx his nickname). And as always in film noir, there’s quotable hard-boiled dialogue (Hughes to Duryea: “No matter how fast you drink it, the distillers are way ahead of ya.”
Once a Thief (1950)
(6:15, 9:45) Gypsy Rose Lee’s smarter sister June Havoc as a San Francisco thief who runs off to LA, where trouble is waiting for her in the form of Cesar Romero. Original story writers Max Kolpe wrote Billy Wilder’s first film Mauvaise Graine, as well as Germany Year Zero for Rossellini and Max Ophuls’ There’s No Tomorrow.
(8pm) Zachary Scott, best known as the rotter in Mildred Pierce, had a flamboyant life: he lived in the Dakota, had his wife stolen by John Steinbeck, suffered what sounds like post-concussion depression, co-starred in Luis Bunuel’s The Young One and was a close relation to George Washington. He also made intriguing-sounding movies such as these. In a 35mm print. from Poverty Row’s own Eagle Lion, an unusually large budgeted story of a heel’s career by Edgar G. Ulmer.
Whispering City (1947)
(6:10. 9:55) If there is such a sub-sub-genre as the Canadian noir, Whispering City fills the bill, with a convoluted tale of displaced murder set in the scenic (even in black and white) environs of Quebec. After a short, and curiously appended, introduction by a garrulous sleigh driver, the action switches to a newspaper office where an enterprising girl reporter named Mary (played by perky Mary Anderson, looking very appealing in a pair of high-heeled shoes with ankle straps) is sent on a job to interview a famous over-the-hill actress who has been hospitalized after a bad car accident and wants to tell all about an a murder years in her past. The investigation leads to a wealthy lawyer (suave Paul Lukas) with ties to the actresses’ estate but seems to hit a dead end when the lawyer calls up his friend the editor and has the article spiked. As it turns out, the lawyer has very good reason to fear exposure and decides that Mary needs to be spiked as well. He tricks one of his clients, a struggling but promising composer (Helmut Dantine), into befriending Mary and then dumping her off a nearby waterfall (“Bigger than Niagara,” says one proud local)—or does he? Despite the farfetched nature of the lawyer’s machinations, the film manages to sustain a fair amount of suspense, especially for those with a fear of heights. Canadian actress Joy Lafleur, who has only three credits to her name, does an excellent job in a small role as the composer’s slatternly, pill-popping wife. A number of the bit parts were played by actual Quebec newspapermen. The film was directed by Fedor Ozep, a noted avant-garde Russian director at the far end of a career that includes the breathless Socialist serial cliff-hanger of 1926, Miss Mend. (Michael S. Gant)
Customs Agent (1950)
(8pm) Customs agent William Eythe goes undercover to track down killers who are in something like Harry Lime’s racket. 35mm.
Smooth As Silk (1947)
(6:40, 9:30) 64 minute long, it’s about a heartless actress (Virginia Grey) whose involvement with a trio of men spells ruin for all of them. The director is Oakland-born Charles Barton (Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein).
Dangerous Blondes (1943)
(8 PM) Evelyn Keyes and Allyn Joslyn in a movie often likened to a Columbia version of The Thin Man, but with a more substantial body-count.
Café Hostess (1940)
(6:45, 9:40) The Ann Dvorak centenary can be celebrated with a peek at her playing a husky-voiced, roundheeled clip-joint hostess.
I Love Trouble (1948) Patrician born a-list actor Franchot Tone’s rocky personal life greased the way to more B-movie roles, such as the part of an easy-going detective; ’30s pre-code siren Glenda Farrell plays his secretary, and Raymond Burr and Eduardo Cianelli are lurking about. Director S. Sylvan Simon died early (age 41), leaving behind a specialty in lightweight musicals: always a good background for this kind of soft-shoe detective material.
(1:45, 5:45, 9:30)
Ride the Pink Horse (1947)
(3:30, 7:30) “Practically revolutionary,” said James Agee, referring to the film’s racial politics more than its sometimes unclear plotting . Skullduggery in New Mexico, where Robert Montgomery (of Lady in the Lake) tracks down a man with a secret. Thomas Gomez (of Force of Evil) plays the proprietor of a merry go round…hence the weird title which, if you ask this former denizen of an elementary schoolyard playground, is also suggestive). Sight unseen, we can say it could be filed with Bad Day at Black Rock and Act of Violence as a noir about uneasy post-war consciences. Programmer Elliot Lavine notes this is “eagerly anticipated” and with the pedigree you can see why: Hitchcock collaborator Joan Harrison produced, Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer scripted. And Montgomery, an early specimen of actor/director, had been around both ends of life; he was a company president’s son who had also been an industrial mechanic, and who tried to make his way as a Greenwich Village writer in the 1920s. The tiny Wanda Hendrix, who makes such a huge impression as the girl in the story, was married for seven months to a severely PTSD-afflicted Audie Murphy; the divorce after the marriage didn’t do her career any favors.
711 Ocean Drive (1950)
(3:45, 7:30) In 35mm. The ever-culpable Edmond O’Brien as a telephone repairman who gets sucked in to the wire betting rackets and climbs to the top, despite some static along the way by the East Coast boss Otto “Dr. Cyclops” Kruger. The concurrent Kefauver committee’s exposee of gangsters gave this one a torn-from-today’s-headlines cachet.
The Web (1947)
(2pm, 5:45, 9:30) An essay on the pitfalls of trusting Vincent Price. Wily, climbing lawyer (Edmond O’Brien) serves a wealthy CEO (Price) a penny-ante subpoena the plutocrat had been dodging; as a result of his nerve, he gets hired as a bodyguard more or less on the spot. The money is too good to refuse, and of course it’s too good to be true. When Price’s previous sap turns up one night, O’Brien is there in time to shoot him and “save the life” of his boss. (The deceased was doomed from the moment he got out of jail, it seems; “The long confinement seems to have unbalanced him seriously,” Price says regretfully.) Cross-cast as an almost Jesuitical homicide detective with acid indigestion, William Bendix gets to play the smartest man in the film. This character actor, generally signed up to play Brooklyn oafs, is allowed to play the kind of Spencer Tracy part that probably lured him into acting in the first place. Moments make it seem like a farce is about to break out, since it’s an odd three handed game between Price, O’Brien and Price’s beard, excuse me, secretary Noel (the slitty-eyed Ella Raines). It’s directed by ace actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s grandfather, Michael Gordon; this Group Theater vet sneaks in some bold touches, such as shooting the players with their backs turned to us, in times of stress or seduction.
Dance Hall Racket (1953)
(6:40 and 9:20) George Weiss (Glen or Glenda and the Olga series) produces, sort of. Phil Tucker of Robot Monster directs these tales of a clip joint in one room with a potted palm in it. Then comes the final bold, budget-busting innovation of an exterior shot. The shot in question takes place in a brick alley, an alley built with the same toughness as the stars: a group of bruised, cat-fighting strippers swept in off the pavement and into the apparently 12 X 12 square foot studio. (“The only thing weirder looking than the women in this movie are the men,” enthuses archivist/rockabilly bastard Johnny Legend, who is shepherding the print.)
The script is the handiwork of the immortal Lenny Bruce, who was likely paid $10 and a sandwich. It’s set in a waterfront (waterfront not included) dime-a-dance parlor, where illicit diamonds are fenced, and sailors are rolled. Bruce plays Vinnie, a stiletto-wielding enforcer with one repeated tag line: “Whatarya? Stoopid?”. Vinnie is a lover as well as a fighter: note the seriousness of the kisses he lays on his later wife Honey Harlow, who is a little more chemical and a lot more feral than Valerie Perrine, who played Harlow in the once-celebrated Bob Fosse biopic. The arrival of Public Enemy #3 after a long stretch in jail brings an end to this den of skeeves.
Which is sad; where will Maxine go? She’s played by Sally Marr the mother courage of the place. She does this terrific charleston and charms the layabouts with her stories. (Marr, who was played in a biographical play by Joan Rivers in 1994, was indeed Bruce’s mother.) Thee clearly stoopidest person in the movie had an even long career. Bernie Jones, here working the Scandahoovian dialect comedy as “Punchy the Sailor” has a long full career, was best known as soloist “Ole Swenson” with Spike Jones, no relation. As Kimberly Freeman’s 2008 obit for her granddad notes, Bernie Jones had a well-spent life as an entertainer; he survived war time service, and was a life-long polkaholic who finished up with guest appearances on The Man Show’s oompah band.
The Violent Years (1956)
(8pm) So young, so bad, so what? Driving around, vandalizing schools, attending pajama-clad smooching parties, smirking at blackboards with “Good citizenship” written on them. It’s all a gate-way drug to gang-stripping chumps (and apparently raping one unfortunate young collegiate off camera). Yes, it’s all fun and games until the shooting begins, and then it’s like gunfights with the cops: “They’re shooting back!”
“This is a story of violence!” we’re warned. It’s a story that knows what side of the law it stands on. Told by a judge (played with supreme flatulence by perennial western movie black-hat and pop-eyed shrimp I. Stanford Jolley) we hear this story of a deb turned J.D., for kicks. The fine hand of Ed Wood, Jr (Plan 9 From Outer Space) is in the script: ever-didactic, ever reiterating: “Law is law, and it must be administered!” Critics seeing proto-feminism in this story of girl-gangs gone wild have to face up to the happy finale: the moral is the importance of staying home from the country club, serving your lord and master his coffee, and regularly taking your daughter “on an old fashioned trip to the woodshed.”
Cell 2455, Death Row (1955)
(8pm) “A bald narrative depicting a senseless life of crime,” raves critic Clive Hirschorn. Fictionalized version of author Caryl Chessman’s plight; while on California’s Death Row awaiting the gas chamber, this convicted rapist (played by William Campbell) fought the death penalty. Guilty or not (probably not “not”) the almost sportive way the penalty was applied to his particular case remains one of the best arguments against the penalty. Among his many last-minute reprieves, one was phoned in just as Chessman was breathing his last in “Mr. Coughee.” 35mm print. Also: Justice and Caryl Chessman, a short doc about the man in question.
Chain Gang (1950)
(6:30, 9:50) Douglas Kennedy (the actor was a real-life OSS man in WWII) as a reporter who goes undercover to expose the brutality of a chain gang.
World For Ransom (1954)
(8pm) Robert Aldrich directs Dan Duryea in what one eagle-eyed viewer named Les Adams realizes is a shot on the sets of TV’s China Smith, with Duryea playing roughly the same thrill-seeking soldier of fortune, under a different name. (Never saw the show, but like all kids I saw the 1959 Daffy Duck/Porky Pig parody by Robert McKimson, “China Jones”.). Duryea, as a good guy, is on the trail of kidnappers who seek to kidnap an expert on the hydrogen bomb.
The 49th Man (1953)
(6:30, 9:40)US agents led by John Ireland track down a plot to smuggle an atomic bomb into an American city; director Fred Sears (Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, Rock Around the Clock) directs.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
(8pm) Robert Aldrich’s intoxicatingly weird but always powerful subversion of a knuckle-sandwich movie. Mike Hammer, the commie-hating private eye in Mickey Spillane’s novels, is caught between smug U.S. government officials and sadistic foreigners as he searches for a stolen suitcase full of some kind of lethal glowing atomic “what’s it.” If the Maltese Falcon is what dreams were made of, what Hammer seeks is the stuff of nightmares. Playing the thug hero (hammer by name, hammer by nature) is Ralph Meeker, who took over for Marlon Brando in the original Broadway run of A Streetcar Named Desire. The film is much imitated, everywhere from Alphaville to Repo Man. The flamboyant cast includes Cloris Leachman (debuting and dying in a still-horrifyingly sadistic manner); Albert “Dr. Cyclops” Dekker as a sinister foreigner; Nat “King” Cole; and the lazy-eye poster boy Jack Elam. One of a kind.
Witness to Murder (1954)
(6:15, 10pm) A finale that anticipates Vertigo is just one of the Hitchcockian touches in this interesting mystery. But the salient feature is the moody John Alton cityscapes of Los Angeles, under siege by Santa Ana winds. The shot that says it all is exteriors of an apartment building full of solitary people; the cloth on the once-fancy arcade is torn and flapping in the wind. Barbara Stanwyck excels as a culpably lonely urban professional who witnesses a murder in the building across the way. Though she can’t convince the police, she does befriend an equally lonely cop (Gary Merrill). Ultimately both are being watched by the killer: a not quite reconstructed Nazi/Nietzschean across the way, played by the one and only George Sanders.
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