Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Noir City 9 shines spotlight on cinematic darkness

The American roots of film noir begin with the crime fiction that emerged during the 1930s from the pens of writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and multitudes of lesser-known talents. In the wake of the Great Depression, these pulp authors reshaped the literary landscape with dark, cynical, morally ambivalent tales of crime, sex and vice — stories steeped in shadowy imagery, tough talk, and a hardscrabble hyper-realism that portrayed a brutal, hostile world. There were no heroes, only anti-heroes — self-preserving pragmatists whose cynicism was born of dashed hopes and faded ideals.

It was only a matter of time before these stories infiltrated Hollywood, merging with the stark, shadowy imagery of German Expressionism, which crossed the Atlantic along with the refugees who left Germany just ahead of Hitler's advancing stormtroopers. And thus a bold and distinctly downbeat genre was born, a German-American hybrid that introduced a stock of melodramatic characters: the dangerous and brooding urban gangster-villain; the tormented innocent caught up in nefarious circumstances beyond his control or comprehension; the icy, diabolical femme fatale; and an array of edgy protagonists ranging from the introspective, tormented, world-weary anti-hero to the twitchy, slippery, would-be hero, the third-rate, small-time hood looking to get ahead in a hostile world for which he is ill-equipped.

Noir City, the annual film festival that celebrates these dark cinematic gems and presents them on the big screen in all their tawdry glory, returns to San Francisco's Castro Theater this Friday with another 10-day program of dames, destruction and depravity. The festival is full of rarities; in fact, most of films in this year's program are not available on DVD.

The festival features 24 films, from A-list masterpieces to B-movie programmers, and kicks off at 7:30 p.m. Friday with Robert Taylor and Audrey Totter in Curtis Bernhardt's High Wall (1947), presented in a new 35-mm print preserved by the Film Noir Foundation. The double feature continues with Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), a Peter Lorre film that some consider the first American noir.

Highlights include two classics from George Cukor: Gaslight (1944), starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, and A Double Life, with Ronald Colman's Oscar-winning performance as a Broadway actor slipping into madness; Strangers in the Night (1944), just one of director Anthony Mann's many great films; Marilyn Monroe as a mentally unstable babysitter who seduces Richard Widmark in Don't Bother to Knock (1952); Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), playing the role created by Agnes Moorhead in the original radio production that was one of the most famous broadcasts from that medium's golden age; and what noir festival would be complete without at least one Humphrey Bogart film? This year, it's The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), in which Bogart plays a mentally unhinged painter with murderous designs on his wife — Stanwyck again.

But the festival's best shows are often the lesser-known gems, pictures large and small that have, for one reason or another, slipped into semi-obscurity over the years.

Olivia de Havilland turns in two strong performances The Dark Mirror (1946), portraying identical twins caught up in a murder investigation. A psychologist aids in unravelling the crime by subjecting the sisters to the usual round of Rorschach tests, and though de Havilland ably delineates the sweet, kindly sister from the jealous and possibly dangerous one, director Robert Siodmak takes pity on the audience by giving the girls personalized necklaces that spell out their names in bold letters — it's as though Siodmak was taking advice from a bad editorial cartoonist.

Woman on the Beach (1947) was directed by the great Jean Renoir, yet the film was drastically cut before its release. Still, it's a strong enough little film, with Robert Ryan as the lovestruck innocent caught in the grip of seductress Joan Bennet. Like an apparition, she appears on the beach and before long Ryan has stepped into the role of savior, trying to free the distressed damsel from the clutches of her husband, an aging painter who has lost his sight, his muse, and, we're left to assume, his virility.

Joan Bennett appears again in a film by another festival regular, director Fritz Lang, whose German films exerted a strong influence on noir. In America, Lang's vision was curtailed, sometimes for the better, but oftentimes for the worse. With Secret Beyond the Door (1948), Lang had simply lost his mojo, spinning a nonsense tale of psychoanalytic babble while hoping his visual flair would carry the day. It didn't, but it's still an entertaining affair, with Bennet struggling to unravel the mysteries of Michael Redgrave's tormented psyche. The film will be presented in a new print restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, a project funded by Martin Scorcese's Film Foundation.

Noir City 9. Through Jan 30 at the Castro Theater, 429 Castro St., San Francisco. For more information see or

Photo: Olivia de Havilland portrays identical twins caught in a murder investigation in Robert Siodmak's The Dark Mirror (1946).

Friday, August 20, 2010

Deconstructing Hef

Haven't we seen enough of Hugh Hefner in his smoking robe and pajamas? Hasn't it been a couple of decades since we'd seen enough? Well, perhaps we can take one last look. His heyday may be long gone, his image and impact reduced by self-caricature and the sort of privilege that allows the wealthy to drift into irrevelance and senility with all their illusions intact; but whatever your take on the man, his mission and his achievements, Hefner has had a significant impact on American culture.

Brigitte Berman's new documentary, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, puts these achievements into context, challenging our preconceived notions of a man who has spent nearly 60 years battling the government, the religious right and outraged feminists in his efforts to push us toward "a healthier attitude toward sex." The film opens Friday, Aug. 20 at Landmark's Lumiere Theater in San Francisco and at Shattuck Cinemas in downtown Berkeley.

But sex is only one aspect of Hefner's career on the public stage. He fought for civil rights, and not merely as a celebrity endorser; he put his money and reputation on the line in defense of the First Amendment; he spoke out against the Vietnam War. In the '50s, '60s and '70s, Hefner never shied away from fighting for the causes he believed in. Newsman Mike Wallace didn't particularly like Hefner when he first interviewed him for 60 Minutes, and he didn't find Hefner's arguments convincing. But years later, Wallace did come to like Hefner, and said that, more than that, he trusted him; for Hefner, whether you agreed with him or not, was always honest and upfront with his beliefs.

Hugh Hefner's improbable journey began when, as a young family man, he came to realize that he was not required to simply live out the model provided by his parents. Seeking an outlet for his creative talents as a writer and cartoonist, he began planning a men's magazine. It would be an intelligent magazine with a stable of talented writers and artists providing provocative essays, literary fiction, sharp cartoons and plenty of humor. But the most daring premise of his venture was its frank sexuality. Hefner would challenge accepted notions of sexual propriety and he would challenge sexually repressive laws, making the claim that, if those laws were enforced, most of the population would face prison sentences of at least five years. His magazine would would air out the sexual taboos of the 1950s with the radical idea that, not only was sex a natural and very important aspect of life, but that women liked it, too.

The first Playboy centerfold was a long rumored but rarely seen nude photo of Marilyn Monroe that Hefner tracked down. Soon Hefner would move from purchasing photos of models and would further explicate his view of sex by staging his own photo sessions, seeking amateur girl-next-door types, presenting sex as common, healthy, fun — even pure in a slightly prurient way.

The magazine courted controversy from the beginning, and Hefner took on his opponents without hesitation, fighting his battles in editorials, in other media, and in the courts. Circulation climbed quickly; within a few years Playboy surpassed Esquire by selling 700,000 copies a month. In time that number would reach 2 million.

Soon Playboy became a high-profile brand and the empire expanded to include a syndicated television show, in which Hefner showcased artists, musicians and intellectuals. His willingness to bring in black guests, including mixed-race vocal groups, thrust him into the civil rights debate, as did his support for Lenny Bruce, whom Hefner provided with legal counsel when the comedian was arrested for obscenity. When Hefner learned that the owners of his Playboy nightclub franchises in the South were, in accordance with discriminatory state laws, refusing to admit black customers or book black performers, he bought the clubs back and ran them himself, defying the law by booking controversial comedian Dick Gregory. As Gregory put it, the white attitude toward black entertainers at the time was, "You can sing to me, nigger, but you can't talk."

Feminists considered these causes and the literary content of his magazine a sort of front, a clever ploy to raise the stature of the magazine and to legitimize Hefner's real vocation: pornography. They called him on the inherent misogyny of the presentation of the girl next door as a closeted wild animal, waiting to spring into action at the snap of a man's fingers; they criticized his promotion of an unattainable physical ideal that few women could emulate; they claimed that he treated women as commodities, as mere fodder for male fantasy, and that the practice was harmful to men as well as women.

The film includes a confrontation with critics on the Dick Cavett Show during which Hefner did not have an answer for these allegations. In a telling moment, he refers to his two feminist critics as girls, making his blind spot apparent: In Hefner's eyes, he's no sexist, no misogynist; he loves girls. Women, however, a more complex proposition.

It's a curious mindset that can't see the problematic nature of Hefner's relations with, and presentations of, women. The glamor of the parties at the Playboy mansion, where Hefner supplied his celebrity friends with wine, food and beautiful women, doesn't conceal his role as a sort of high-society pimp. He fails to recognize the possibility that women are drawn to him not out of love or physical attraction, but because of his money and power and star-making potential, his ability to launch a young woman on a career path as he did Jenny McCarthy, Shannon Tweed and Pamela Anderson. His proclamations of sexual honesty and freedom belie the fact that his view of sex is not only relentlessly male-centric but blatantly adolescent. Thus his provocative centerfolds spurred a national debate while simultaneously retarding it; they put sex center-stage but it was a rather limited view of sex, and when that point was made, Hefner and Playboy were ill-prepared for the debate that followed.

In the Reagan years, Playboy was beset by a boycott campaign that pressured convenience stores to drop the magazine, leading to significant losses in circulation which it never recovered. The nightclubs closed; a Playmate was murdered; and Hefner suffered a stroke. His brush with death changed his outlook and he tried marriage and family life again; but once that marriage failed, he returned to his swinging ways with a vengeance, overcompensating with polygamous relationships with a bevy of young, buxom blondes.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, for years a friend, supporter and admirer of Hefner, says she no longer mentions his name when debating issues of sexual freedom; he mixed up his personal life with his mission, she says, so that the self-caricature of his later years has undermined his credibility and the merits of his arguments — people just don't take him seriously anymore. Other friends interviewed in the film say that love is his "rosebud," the elusive childhood longing that motivates the man.

So if your image of Hefner is a doddering old fool drifting into senility with a bleach-blonde silicon doll on each arm, his lascivious grin masking the emptiness inside as his improbably buoyant companions serve as substitutes for love ... well, fair enough. But it's the extremist who push the limits, who forges the debate and pushes us toward progress. Hefner established the other end of the spectrum; we may not travel even half the distance across that spectrum, but at least we know the limits, allowing us to better define ourselves and our place on the continuum. Hefner is happy to help people to define their values, even if they only define them in opposition to his own.

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

124 minutes. Not rated. Directed by Brigitte Berman. Featuring Hugh Hefner, Jim Brown, Gene Simmons, Jenny McCarthy, Mike Wallace, Dick Gregory, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Tony Bennett, James Caan, Joan Baez, David Steinberg, George Lucas, Bill Maher, Pete Seeger.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Two Gently Unfolding Dramas by Yasujiro Ozu

Almost from the beginning of the medium, filmmakers were eager to transcend the limits of traditional theater by putting the camera in motion, by sending it racing, swooping and soaring; by using a variety of lenses to shape the image, to magnify, distort and exaggerate; and by using the editing process to suggest, startle and surprise. And while some of the most exciting filmmakers over the past century have been those who found ways to employ these devices with flash and panache, one of the greatest directors the medium has ever produced was one who limited himself to the simplest and most austere techniques.

Yasujiro Ozu used his camera simply to observe his characters, to linger on their faces, their homes, their possessions—to look into the souls of everyday people under everyday circumstances. He was both a naturalist and a rigorous formalist, a director who sought to capture life as it is lived, but within a framework of rigidly defined restrictions. He limited the camera’s range of motion and the angles from which it could gaze; he limited his editing to simple, direct cuts—few dissolves or fades; and dialogue was conveyed in simple master shots followed by alternating close-ups. This artistic

code focused greater attention on content over form, allowing character to reveal itself, allowing dialogue to breathe, and allowing revelatory spaces to open up between words and gestures and characters. Thus relationships and motivations and plot points would gradually take shape before the viewer’s eyes.

Criterion has just released two rarely seen examples of Ozu’s mid-career work, The Only Son (1936) and There Was a Father (1942). The two films have many parallels, both tracking the relationship between a son and a single parent who must make great sacrifices for him.

In The Only Son, a mother lives a life of toil in order to send her son to college and eventually Tokyo, where she hopes he will rise in the world. When she is finally able to visit him, she is surprised to find that not only has he a wife and child, but a rather lowly job as a night school teacher. And the school teacher who had served as his mentor has fared no better in the big city; he runs a shabby restaurant, serving pork cutlets in a poor part of town. Mother and son spend several days together, for the most part avoiding the issues at hand. But there are two conversations in which these issues finally come to the service, and Ozu's muted approach captures the spoken and unspoken emotions that permeate the dialogue — disappointment, pride, shame, regret, love, resignation, dignity and acceptance.

There Was a Father stars Ozu stalwart Chishu Ryu as a man who seeks the best for his son, only to find that his decisions lead to their continual separation. This was a wartime film, and themes of duty and sacrifice were considered patriotic, lending the movie a political subtext, a rarity in Ozu's work. Far from the American form of propaganda film, in which virtuous leading men with broad shoulders committed acts of heroism on the front line while their pinup-worthy wives kept the home fires burning, Japanese propaganda featured a more quiet form of sacrifice, of fortitude and dutiful dedication to the nation's interests. There Was a Father shows that that dedication even trumps the father-son relationship, as Ryu consistently steers his son in directions that will make him most useful to Japan, even though it drives the two of them apart.

Ozu's work is almost literary, owing more to the novel than to film; his means of expression are subtle and powerful. His method for conveying the growing gap between father and son is to show the two fishing side by side. The camera watches from behind as the pair cast their lines over and over again in perfect unison. When the boy finally stops, the meaning and impact of the gesture is startling and poignant; there is no need to show tears or an exchange of words or glances.

Though he is often regarded as the most Japanese of Japanese directors, whose cinema captured unique and specific aspects of that nation’s life and culture, Ozu’s work easily transcends international boundaries, delving into character, relationships and commonplace issues to find the universal. His favored subjects include families and the relationships between generations; the aging process; city life versus rural life; and all the values that complement and conflict with one another in the ensuing drama: pragmatism and idealism, love and kindness, justice and forgiveness.

“Rather than tell a superficial story,” Ozu said, “I wanted to go deeper, to show ... the ever-changing uncertainties of life. So instead of constantly pushing dramatic action to the fore, I left empty spaces, so viewers could have a pleasant aftertaste to savor.”

Ozu's calm, gently unfolding dramas give us time to not only get to know his characters, but also deeply care about them — to enjoy their humor, to admire their strength and to forgive their transgressions — so that, when a film ends, there is often a feeling of regret that these characters are gone from our lives. “Every time I watch an Ozu film,” says actor Eijiro Tong, “I start to feel very sentimental as the end of the film nears. As I think back over the story, it’s like a flood of old memories washing over me, one after another.”

This is the essential sadness and loneliness that resides at the core of Ozu’s work — the awareness of the inevitability of change, and that beginnings are followed all too soon by endings.

The Only Son (1936) and There Was a Father (1942): Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu. 83 minutes; 87 minutes. Two-disc set includes essays by critic and historian Tony Rayns, an appreciation of Chishu Ryu by film scholar Donald Ritchie, comments by Ryu on Ozu, and video interviews with film scholars Tadao Sato, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr.

In 1928, Buster Keaton was wrapping up an astounding decade of independent filmmaking, seemingly with another decade or two stretched out before him. But circumstances conspired to bring his remarkable string of sterling comedies to a premature end. During production on his tenth feature film, Steamboat Bill, Jr., Keaton's marriage ended in bitter divorce and Joseph Schenk, Keaton's producer and brother-in-law, sold his contract to MGM, a move that would render silent comedy's most innovative auteur a mere shift worker in Hollywood's largest cinema assembly line. And with the talkies just around the corner, it's no wonder that Keaton's loss of personal and professional autonomy should lead to a fierce bout of alcoholism and steep career decline.

The great clown's depression is on clear display in Steamboat Bill's — and indeed the silent era's — most spectacular stunt, in which Buster stands motionless as gale-force winds bring a thousand-pound wall crashing down around him, the frame of a second-floor window passing neatly over his head and around his shoulders, leaving him stunned but unscathed. Keaton's crew tried to dissuade him from performing the stunt; the photographer cranked the camera with his eyes averted, and the co-director refused to take part at all, taking refuge in a nearby tent while praying for Keaton's soul.

Keaton's career had reached an artistic if not commercial peak a couple of years earlier with The General, his Civil War comedy masterpiece. It was an expensive production that made relatively little profit and drew mixed reviews, prompting Schenk to require Keaton to make a markedly less ambitious follow-up. Keaton kept costs down on his next few films, including Steamboat Bill, saving his money for a lavish finish in which a hurricane wreaks havoc on River Junction. It's a remarkable sequence of daring stunts and comedic destruction, providing a climactic conclusion to Keaton's independent career, one that would, unfortunately, foreshadow the stormy times that lay ahead for him.

1928. 70 minutes. $29.95.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up

It was with 1999’s Taste of Cherry that Abbas Kiarostami firmly cemented his international reputation, becoming the first Iranian filmmaker to win the Palme d’or at the Cannes film festival. But by then, his contemplative, intelligent films had been spurring debate in his home country for many years. Close-Up (1990), Kiarostami's emphatic declaration of Iranian cinematic artistry, looked back on cinema itself through a refracted lens, blending fiction, fact and fantasy into a story both stimulating and sad.

Close-Up was inspired by a news story Kiarostami read concerning Hossein Sabzian, an obsessive cinemaphile who impersonated Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and thereby insinuated himself into the life of a wealthy family, if only for a few days. Kiarostami then insinuated himself into Sabzian's trial, convincing the judge to not only allow the director to film the proceedings, but to question the defendant as the cameras rolled. The director also managed to persuade Sabzian and his victims to re-enact the story of their meeting and brief association, and then, upon Sabzian's release from jail, staged a meeting between the impersonator and the impersonated, with Mohsen Makhmalbaf carrying Sabzian on the back of his motorcycle to the home of his victims to ask for their forgiveness.The result is an examination of cinema and the troubled mind of a man who has devoted his life to a fanatic appreciation of the art. Close-Up, as with all of Kiarostami's best work, uses the drama and melodrama of everyday life to present his viewers with tantalizing, even baffling questions, and wisely leaves the answers to us.

Criterions' new DVD and BluRay editions of the film include audio commentary by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum; The Traveler, Kiarostami's first feature film; a documentary on Hossein Sabzian, six years after Close-Up; a new interview with Kiarostami; and A Walk with Kiarostami, a documentary portrait of the director by Iranian film professor Jamsheed Akrami.

1990. 98 minutes. $39.95.

Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich

Today, British director Carol Reed's reputation rests primarily on The Third Man, the 1950 post-war thriller in which Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles joined an international cast in the sewers of Vienna in the creation of a cinema classic. But Reed created at least two more masterpieces with The Fallen Idol and Odd Man Out, as well as a number of other fine but lesser-known films, produce both before and after his late '40s peak.

Night Train to Munich is a delirious ride, a curious hybrid of espionage thriller, Allied propaganda and screwball comedy, in which Nazis pursue a Czech scientist and his daughter from Prague to England to a precarious tram in the Swiss Alps. Rarely seen today, it was quite a success upon its release in 1940, its wry wit, sly sexual innuendo and absurdist cloak-and-dagger romance taking viewers on a stylish and ironic — if low-budget — tour through a series of genre conventions. Rex Harrison is suave and sarcastic, if a bit smarmy; Paul Henreid turns his heroic image on its head; and Margaret Lockwood maintains her beauty, humor and poise throughout a parade of plot twists.

Criterion's new DVD and BluRay editions of the film include an essay by film critic Philip Kemp and a conversation between film scholars Peter Evans and Bruce Babbington regarding Carol Reed, Night Train screenwriters, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, and the film's social and political context.

1940. 90 minutes. $29.95.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Mystery Train Explores a Mythic Memphis

Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train is a laconic journey, in three parts, through a Memphis of the imagination. Spurred by the passion and fury of a fierce backbeat, three interlocking deadpan vignettes find rock and roll pilgrims searching for something — the ghost of Elvis, the spirit of Carl Perkins, or a vague yearning for the vaguely defined essence of pompadoured rebellion — amid the empty streets and hollowed-out hotels of a faded town still trading on a brief epochal moment in its history. A young, star-struck Japanese couple, a rebel without a cause, and a comically stoic widow traverse the remnants of a mythic city in a mythic America in search of the reflected glory of the nearly mythic but everlasting moment of its ascendence. Screamin' Jay Hawkins, one of the real-life architects of rock and roll, takes a supporting role as an eccentric hotelier working the late shift.

Criterion's new DVD and BluRay editions of the film included a Q&A with Jarmusch; excerpts from the 2001 documentary Screamin' Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on Me; a documentary about the film's locations and the musical history of Memphis; and essays by Dennis Lim and Peter Guralnick.

1989. 110 minutes. $39.95.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Noir City Brings Cinema’s Dark Side to the Castro

An “eternal juvenile” no more, Dick Powell finally broke free of the battery of baby-faced roles he endured in a seemingly endless series of bright-eyed 1930s Warner Bros. musicals. With middle age fast approaching, Powell struggled to carve out a new identity for himself, jumping ship from one studio to another in search of a new career path.

Eventually he succeeded. Two examples of Dick Powell born again will screen this weekend as part of Noir City, the annual film noir festival at San Francisco’s Castro Theater. This year’s theme is “Lust and Larceny” and there is plenty of both throughout the 10-day series, which kicks off Friday with Pitfall, featuring Powell and Lizabeth Scott, and continues through Jan. 31. Powell appears again in Cry Danger, showing Saturday, Jan. 23.

In an effort to shed his boyish Warner Bros. image, Powell bought out his contract and signed with Paramount, only to bolt again when the studio denied him the lead in Double Indemnity. Soon enough Powell signed with RKO, and landed the plum role of shamus Philip Marlowe in the Raymond Chandler adaptation Murder My Sweet.

This breakthrough role was followed by more in the same vein: dark, hard-bitten dramas with a world-weary edge, a distinctly American genre to which French critics would ultimately give the name. Powell parlayed his second wave of cinematic success into a couple of radio gigs as well, including one of his signature characters, the private detective Richard Diamond. Powell was even secure enough by this point to include a nod to his earlier persona, finishing each episode by crooning a tune to his paramour.

It was at this time that Powell made one of his best, but least-known films, Cry Danger. Powell plays a sardonic, embittered ex-con, determined after five years in the pen to set a few things straight. Dry, drunken, down-on-his-luck Richard Erdman is along for the ride as a battle-scarred ex-Marine angling for a payday as reward for getting Powell out of prison.

Cry Danger showed at Noir City a couple of years ago, and though it was a murky 16-millimeter print—the only print available at the time—it was a crowd-pleaser. The evening was made all the more entertaining by the presence of Richard Erdman, who proved himself every bit the charismatic wisecracker even in his 80s. This year, the film screens in a brand-new 35-millimeter print, a rare opportunity to see this acerbic crime classic in peak condition.

In addition to Powell, this year’s program pays tribute to festival favorite Richard Widmark with a Jan. 29 double feature. Slattery’s Hurricane shows Widmark in one of his early leading roles, firmly

establishing the persona that would sustain him through several classics of the genre: tough, jaded, maybe a bit sleazy, but with a kind of weary decency waiting to shine through. Second on the bill is the Samuel Fuller noir masterpiece Pickup On South Street, with Widmark as an underworld conman, a pick-pocket who lives by his wits. Widmark seduces Jean Peters and plays the commies and the feds against each other while knocking back beers chilled in the icy waters beneath his shabby dockside shack.

The festival is full of rarities, films not available on DVD, many not available even on VHS. Another seldom-seen gem is Human Desire, one of director Fritz Lang’s better American films. Adapted from Emile Zola’s novel La Bete Humaine, Human Desire is a melodrama of love, lust and betrayal amid the freightyards of Philadelphia. Glen Ford plays a soldier just back from the Korean War who wants nothing more than to settle back into his life as a railroad engineer, with time to fish, catch a movie, or even step out with a nice girl, if he can find one. What he finds however is Vicky, played by perennial film noir femme fatale Gloria Grahame, whose marriage to Broderick Crawford is teetering on the edge of a spectacular collapse.

Lang had a checkered career in Hollywood, with neither the resources nor the autonomy he enjoyed in his pre-war German career. But Human Desire shows him in fine form, employing the intelligence and artistry that characterized his silent and early sound-era masterpieces. Long stretches pass artfully without dialogue, and the sights and sounds of trains, railroad tracks and freightyards are used to excellent effect, keeping the drama taut while filling the screen with compelling imagery.

Other highlights of the festival include Larceny, a dizzying melodrama of twists and turns centering around greed, corruption, and of course, dangerous dames; Marilyn Monroe in Niagara and Asphalt Jungle; A Place in the Sun, an adaptation of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift; Escape in the Fog, in which a nurse is haunted by a dream of a murder committed on the Golden Gate Bridge; and an evening entitled “Bad Girls of Film Noir,” featuring “poor man’s Marilyn Monroe” Cleo Moore in a double bill of One Girl’s Confession and Women’s Prison.

Noir City

Friday, Jan 22 through Sunday, Jan 31 at the Castro Theater, San Francisco.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire

Wim Wenders’ evocative and mysterious Wings of Desire (1987) has been released by the Criterion Collection in a two-disc, director-approved edition, with many extra features and an engaging and informative commentary track by the director.

This is one of those films where every ingredient plays a vital role. Wenders’ camera movement is delicate and eloquent; Henri Alekan’s photography is somber yet romantic; J├╝rgen Knieper’s score is visceral in its impact; writer Peter Handke’s interior monologues bring the disparate thoughts of Berlin’s residents into a unified tapestry of sound and emotion; and Peter Falk’s role as a one-time angel who gave up eternity for a shot at life on earth grounds the film in earthly pleasures while providing the film with a spark of self-referential humor.

But the most important and powerful aspect of Wings of Desire is the warm, benevolent gaze of Bruno Ganz as the guardian angel who longs to join the material world. Etched in Alekan’s black and white photography, his is a face of compassion and empathy, able to share in the sorrow and joy of those he watches over. And when he finally crosses over, in a burst of color and sensory data—cold frost, the taste of his own blood, the vitality and breathlessness of a brisk walk along chilly city streets—it is a face of almost childlike wonder.

127 minutes. $39.95.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles

Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles (1961) covers one night in the lives of young Native Americans living in Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill district. Mackenzie began interviewing a group of Indians in Los Angeles in 1956 and secured their support in producing an independent film that would provide a realistic portrayal of their community’s daily life. The film was completed in 1961 but has rarely been seen until its restoration by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and its subsequent theatrical release by Milestone.

The Exiles follows a group of young Native American men as they essentially forsake their women for a night on the town, meeting up with friends at bars, cavorting with other women, venturing into the hills for drinking, drumming and fighting. They make their way along a circuit of Indian hangouts, small oases in a white man’s city where they can be together and, hopefully, left alone to be themselves. Meanwhile, a lonely wife goes to the movies and finally returns to the home of a friend so that she doesn’t have to sleep alone. In the morning she is able to watch as her husband and his friends finally stumble home drunk through the streets of Bunker Hill.

The rough, gritty, low-budget aesthetic recalls Shadows, John Cassavetes’ first film, set in New York. Both films feel loose and improvised, giving the impression of an authentic depiction of a place and time. And both focus attention on the cities themselves, using the urban landscapes as contexts for the lives of the characters, while also providing a sort of snapshot of a city at a particular point in time.

Milestone is a small company that picks and chooses its material, often sinking much of the company’s resources into a single theatrical and DVD release. The company is responsible for making some rare and important films available to the movie-going public, including I Am Cuba and Killer of Sheep—an impressive streak of significant releases that continues with The Exiles.

72 minutes. $29.95.