Femmes Fatales Feb 23 2017
PIERCING GAZE
This is not a homicidal glare. This is a homicidal glare.


Above, two borderline scary promo photos of Joan Crawford made when she was shooting the film noir Mildred Pierce, a movie that, embarrassingly, represents a gaping hole in our film watching résumé. We'll take care of that soon. These images are from 1945. 

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Hollywoodland Feb 5 2017
FALLING FOR BOGART
You know what they say about men with big hats.

In this production still from 1946's The Big Sleep featuring a bizarrely large hat in the foreground, Martha Vickers falls into Humphrey Bogart's arms. Bogart, under normal circumstances, would have been smart to likewise fall for Miss Vickers, but his other choice in the movie was Lauren Bacall. Which means it was she who got hat, head, and all the rest.

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Modern Pulp Jan 28 2017
BEASTLY BOYS
You mess with the bull you get the horns.

Expert safecracker Gal Dove, played by Ray Winstone, has retired to sunny Spain, but criminal associates back in England want him for a job. Arriving in the Costa del Sol to make the pitch for them is the persuasive—and psychotic—Ben Kingsley, who terrorizes Gal and his close circle in an effort to bully him into partnering up. The movie mainly focuses on the battle of wills between a man trying to move on with his life and a monster that won't take no for an answer. For a long while it looks as though there won't be a heist at all, but the film circles around to that eventually, showing the event in montage form. And though this robbery is unique in execution it's ancillary plotwise, because Sexy Beast is less a heist film than a psychological drama about how difficult it is for a talented crook to get out the rackets, and how his former self and past sins are never deeply buried. Made in 2001 and directed by a man who clearly knows his film noir in Jonathan Glazer, this is both the most straightforward film showing at Noir City, and also the one—with its dialogue driven pacing and shorts bursts of violence—we can most easily imagine as a 1940s production. Dark, quirky, visually dazzling, and fun.

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Vintage Pulp Jan 23 2017
ANATOMY OF A ROBBERY
Making a killing at the track is harder than they think.

Tonight the Noir City Film Festival is also screening Stanley Kubrick's 1956 crime procedural The Killing. The title refers not to murder but to making a killing—i.e. a highly profitable score. Sterling Hayden leads a cast that includes Coleen Gray, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Marie Windsor. Hayden and crew hope to rob a race track, and to do this they lay out a precise plan that includes causing a brawl at the track bar as one distraction, and shooting a horse mid-race as another. What could go wrong, right? But the crazy plan makes sense, and if you have trouble following it a stentorian narration breaks down the action for you. We didn't mind that so much—the entire premise of the movie is that it's a faux-documentary, so the voiceover is something you have to accept. But the trumpets and tympani on the soundtrack—wow—are way overcooked. Still, this is a nice piece of noir, occasionally running on parallel timelines, with plenty of directorial style from a twenty-eight-year-old Kubrick. Some might take issue with the film's heavyhanded irony, but it's all somewhat redeemed by the perfection with which Hayden delivers his final line. The Killing didn't do well at the box office, however as often happens with films from directors who later become icons, opinions have shifted over the decades. But even if modern day critics are in agreement that The Killing is a top effort, it still won't be everyone's cup of tea. You'll just have to judge for yourself.

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Vintage Pulp Jan 22 2017
FRENCH BROOD
C'est nous qui d'mande du Rififi.

Tonight the Noir City Film Festival screens Jules Dassin's classic crime drama Du rififi chez les homes, aka Rififi for the second time in three years. It's appropriate, though, since Dassin was the noir master behind Night and the City, Thieves' Highway, The Naked City, and Brute Force. Based on Auguste Le Breton's novel, Rifiifi came in 1955 after Dassin's work had been absent from Hollywood screens for five years—a break brought about due to his blacklisting by the anti commie crowd. Dassin made Rififi in France and reminded Hollywood exactly what they had lost.

We first meet the character Tony le Stéphanois in a poker game where he's lost his shirt. The other players won't let him continue without more cash, and that's how we meet his close friend Jo, who's called in to take Tony home. Tony is a big time criminal fresh out of prison and down on his luck, while Jo is a green young crook. Jo and his accomplice Mario have hatched a plan to cut the glass out of a jewelry store window and steal the few gems in the display, and they ask Tony to partner with them.

Our introduction to this trio makes them all seem sympathetic, but this Tony is a bad guy. When does that become crystal clear? When he whips his ex-girlfriend with a belt. Which beyond its literal significance also seems to indicate that people around Tony get hurt generally. He soon convinces Jo and Mario that their smash-and-grab idea is peanuts, and under his influence the plan grows into a full scale heist—one of the most memorable heist sequences in cinema, containing almost no dialogue, and running close to half an hour of screen time.
 
If you've never seen the film you may be wondering what exactly is “rififi”? A name? A place? The idea is explained in detail to a nightclub audience in a highly entertaining number by Magali Noël, because even French audiences of the day didn't know what it meant. We could tell you what Noël sang about it, but what would be the fun in that? If you want to know you'll have to watch the movie.

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Vintage Pulp Jan 21 2017
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
The best defense is a good offense.

Four robbers knock off a bank in Kansas City with plans to split the money after the heat has cooled. The mastermind behind the job has arranged it so the crooks don't meet before the job, and wear masks during it, thus can't possibly identify each other. But each man has an ace, torn in half to create a unique mate, to match with the second half and confirm his identity when the time comes. It all sounds clever and foolproof, except the mastermind has framed someone for the robbery to throw police off their trail, and when this man is arrested but turned loose from police custody due to lack of evidence, he decides to track down the men who set him up.

This character, played by John Payne, is our anti-hero and looming wrench in theives' works. He quickly picks up the trail of one of the robbers in Mexico, but the police have too. In trying to discover who framed him, Payne could look to these lurking cops as though he's a member of the gang—if they spot him, that is. When Payne sees an opportunity to adopt one of the robber's identities—no difficult task since they've never seen each other—he leaps at it, but this draws him in even deeper. He's now in danger from the men he's playing imposter to, while to the cops he looks like a participant in the robbery.

There are more twists, including a star-crossed romance with Coleen Gray, but we'll stop there. This is a nice, multi-layered film noir, with good performances all around. Considering the risk Payne has to take we aren't sure we fully buy his motivation, but once he's made the decision there's no easy way out, and it's fun to watch him threaten and beat his way up the chain to the top guy. Coleen Gray always adds a nice element to any movie she's in, and Lee Van Cleef is good in a tough guy role. The only serious blemish here may be the silly final minute, but you shouldn't let it ruin the film for you. We recommend giving this one a whirl.

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Vintage Pulp Jan 21 2017
WEEKEND FROM HELL
You spend all week looking forward to Saturday and then this happens.

In Violent Saturday, a group of people are loosely connected to a smalltown bank that has been targeted by a trio of robbers. Yes, it's a heist double feature at the Noir City Film Festival. We meet the big shot at a local mine who is one of the bank's most important customers. We meet his cheating wife, who's having an affair with a bank employee. We're introduced to a group of Amish who have no idea their nearby community has been chosen as a rendezvous point. We get to know the bank manager—and the woman whose window he peeps through at night. As you might guess from our rundown, the examination of all these characters and their situations is detailed. In fact, it lasts two thirds of the film.

When the bank is finally robbed, some of these people will find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time as the criminals' careful plan degenerates into a kill-or-be-killed fiasco. Lethal results are coming but we have no idea who will survive. Everyone is flawed, everyone has hope for a good future, but not all of them will get to see it. Violent Saturday is a DeLuxe color production rather than a standard black and white film noir. Set in Arizona, it was dubbed "southwestern noir" by the Village Voice, but really it's just a tidy little thriller—with an untidy little finish. We think it fits nicely on the Noir City slate.

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Intl. Notebook Jan 20 2017
NIGHT AND THE CITY
The fog of noir creeps into San Francisco.

Once again the Noir City Film Festival gears up in our former home turf of San Francisco, and once again the event provides a perfect excuse for us to watch a few of the films. Noir City, now in its fifteenth year, is one of the most established film noir festivals in the U.S., along with those in Los Angeles and Palm Springs. However, the San Fran version sets itself apart with great promo posters like the one you see above, and others you can see from previous fests here.

This year's slate features twenty-four noir and crime thrillers, including entries from Japan, England, France, and Italy. We'll keep our musings on these films brief as always, because yet more extravagantly written amateur movie reviews are not needed online. For those in the Bay Area, we recommend taking advantage of the opportunity to see these classic movies as they were intended to be shown—on a big screen in a packed house.  

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Vintage Pulp Jan 20 2017
CROSSED UP
Bank heist goes every which way except the right way.

This year's Noir City Film Festival opens with the 1949 heist drama Criss Cross. Based on a bestselling novel of the same name by Don Tracy, it's the story of man played by Burt Lancaster who returns to Los Angeles after some years away to find that his ex-wife Yvonne De Carlo has hooked up with a local gangster. The exes rekindle their flame, but when it looks as if the gangster has caught them in the act Lancaster spontaneously cooks up a story about how he was putting together a plan to rob the armored car service for which he works.

Lancaster's robbery idea is not only designed to deflect the gangster's suspicion away from the affair, but to also fund the future he envisions with De Carlo when she and him run away. This scheme, which strains credulity, is probably one of the most obviously terrible ideas in the long, celebrated history of doomed ideas in film noir, but with good direction by Robert Siodmak, who had worked with Lancaster on The Killers, and good acting by all involved, the film concludes on the positive side of the effectiveness ledger. Numerous excellent Los Angeles exteriors, including at Union Station and on now mostly leveled Bunker Hill, make this noir an important time capsule as well, an aspect that increases its appeal. And an excellent musical number by Esy Morales & His Rhumba Band gives the proceedings a further boost. All in all, Criss Cross is a winner.

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Vintage Pulp Jan 20 2017
URBAN JUNGLE
It's nobody's Asphalt but their own.

The best poster for the movie The Asphalt Jungle was, beyond doubt, the one we showed you a while back painted by the Italian artist Angelo Cesselon. But that one came a bit later. The above poster was made for the film's initial release in 1950. We think it's very nice as well, if remarkably different from Cesselon's masterpiece. As for the movie, we could tell you it's a top effort, but you already know that. If you haven't seen it, definitely do. It's showing at the Noir City Film Festival tonight, but even at home it's worth a screening.

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
February 26
1917—First Jazz Record Is Made
In New Orleans, The Original Dixieland Jass Band records the first ever jazz record for the Victor Talking Machine Company in New York. The band was frequently billed as the "Creators of Jazz", but in reality all the members had previously played in the Papa Jack Laine bands, a group of racially mixed performers who helped form the basis of Dixieland while playing under bandleader George Laine.
February 25
1947—Prussia Ceases To Exist
The centuries-old state of Prussia, which had been a great European power under the reign of Frederick the Great during the 1800s, and a major influence on German culture, ceases to exist when it is dissolved by the post-WWII Allied Control Council comprised of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union.
1964—Clay Beats Liston
Heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay, aged 22, becomes champion of the world after beating Sonny Liston, aka the Dark Destroyer, in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. It would be the beginning of a storied and controversial career for Clay, who would announce to the world shortly after the fight that he had changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
February 24
1920—The Nazi Party Is Founded
The small German Workers' Party, or DAP, which was under the direction of Adolf Hitler, changes its name to the National Socialist German Workers' Party. Though Hitler adopted the socialist label to attract working class Germans, his party in fact embraced mainly anti-socialist ideas. The group became known in English as the Nazi Party, and within the next fifteen years expanded to become the most powerful force in German politics.
1942—Battle of Los Angeles Takes Place
A object flying over wartime Los Angeles triggers a massive anti-aircraft barrage, ultimately killing 3 civilians. Initially the target of the aerial barrage is thought to be an attacking force from Japan, but it is later suggested to be imaginary and a case of "war nerves", a lost weather balloon, a blimp, a Japanese fire balloon, or even an extraterrestrial craft. The true nature of the object or objects remains unknown to this day, but the event is known as the Battle of Los Angeles.
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