Noir City DC 2016—Art of Darkness II

In my favorite joke from an absolutely terrible comedy, St. Peter says to a newly arrived soul—“You’re not good enough to go to Heaven, but you’re not bad enough to go to Hell. If you were music, you’d be Barry Manilow.” No, I”m not keen on Barry Manilow, but he does have a few good songs. His voice is not remarkable, and most of his songs are forgettable. That’s what makes writing about anything in the middle of the pack tough. Good and/or interesting in spots, but overall, meh. There’s nothing to really distinguish it. And that’s true about these films. 

The strongest of the middling is THE NARROW MARGIN, which stars Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor. It’s a noir-stained police thriller with some interesting twists. This story involves cops trying to protect a witness so she’ll testify before a federal court against a mobster. Straight forward plot until you realize it’s not the woman you think it is. It doesn’t waste much time on characterization. And it does suffer some overblown dialogue. The movie gets its job done, and doesn’t waste time, either its own or a viewer’s.

DECEPTION reunited Bette Davis, Claude Rains, and Paul Heinreid. They’d all starred in NOW, VOYAGER. There was something about Claude Rains that seemed to keep Bette Davis from totally chewing up the scenery. Perhaps it’s because he was the king of snark. In this movie, he plays the “little banty rooster” to the hilt.Yes, Raines was a short guy, but the filmmakers goosed the Napoleon complex into overdrive—complete with gold throne, Siamese cat, mammoth house (ego) and bed (libido?). Claude Rains’ maestro is suave, erudite, temperamental, mercurial, and utterly prickish. 

I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. He dominated every scene, none more so than when he crashes the wedding reception of Bette Davis and Paul Heinreid. Davis plays her pianist in a more restrained fashion until the end when she comes unglued. She playing a woman under the sexual and intellectual thumb of her mentor, so she can’t really compete with him. Once he’s not around anymore, she can let go. Heinreid plays Davis husband, a cellist, in a believable, if unexpressive fashion. To some extent, his nondramatic performance gives emotional relief to the viewer. Yet, at the same time, his cellist is on the edge of a nervous breakdown due to his WWII experiences, which weren’t really explored. In 1946, when the picture came out, it didn’t really have to be. 

None of these actors were musicians, but they faked it well enough for the time. The original score was provided by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Eleanor Slatkin provided the cello for Paul Heinreid.

What is DECEPTION? Is it an art film? A woman’s picture? A romance? A noir? It’s a noir-stained, melodramatic, romantic triangle until the end when it pitches over into total noir. It’s also gorgeously shot in noir style.

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL—

I will watch almost any movie with Kirk Douglas in it. I’ll even suffer through Lana Turner (she wasn’t exactly known for her acting) to see Douglas, Walter Pidgeon (the stable center of this backstabbing circus), Barry Sullivan, and Dick Powell.  Gloria Graham is in this, too, playing the wife of a Southern professor (Powell), with the most atrocious Southern accent I’ve ever heard. Someone should’ve told Hollywood that Virginia isn’t Georgia.

Eddie Muller introduced this film as the epitome of this year’s Noir City theme—Art of Darkness. Most of the movies deal with the madness and paranoia that comes from artistic genius. THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL concerns the isolation of the artist. Eddie Muller loves this film, thinks it’s the best movie about Hollywood. 

Structurally, it (as we'll as THE KILLERS which was also on the bill, but which I saw in Summer of Darkness) owes a great deal to CITIZEN KANE—flashbacks within flashbacks. Each flashback details the history of a character’s relationship with Kirk Douglas’s boy wonder director character, who ultimately stabs all his friends and associates in the back. (Even tho’ the flashbacks were sequential, they got to be tedious.) There are elements here that make one think that Douglas’ character (whom you never see except in the flashbacks) is based on David O SeIznick, while Dick Powell could be Willam Faulkner. Barry Sullivan’s could’ve been half a dozen people. 

It was nominated for six Oscars and got five, Kirk Douglas missing for Best Actor. 

THE DARK CORNER stars Mark Stevens as a PI and Lucille Ball as his secretary. The PI is being set up to take the fall for a murder, and his plucky secretary helps get him out of it. Every trope of noir is here, but half of it is salon noir, the noir world of the well-to-do, exemplified here by Clifton Webb. He’s playing another snotty, upper crust, effete snob to great effect. This salon noir collides with the nitty gritty of the urban underbelly—rooming houses, penny arcades—that the PI and his secretary go slithering around. The high angle and low angle shots bring the salon into conflict with the lower classes. The city shimmers with menace. But whence the real menace? 

The tension isn’t really there because the plot is ho-hum. The clues are easily found.

The real problem with this film is Mark Stevens. He cannot deliver the dialogue which, for him, alternates between tough guy and the straight Joe. He was also a wooden actor. Lucille Ball outshines him. She can sell the dialogue. He’s meh, she’s great, and you wonder why her character would have anything to do with his. You want to shake the secretary and say, “Girlfriend, you can do better.”

None of these films is a waste of time. They’ll easily kill an hour and half, and quite pleasurably, too. They just won’t leave you hanging on the edge of your seat like a good noir should.

 Copyright KG Whitehurst
webmaster: kgw@KGWhitehurst.com