The 16th annual Noir City film festival went out with a bang last night. I’m always sad to see it end, but what a way to go!
Before we got started on the last double bill of the run, we got to see a great little promo film for the Film Noir Foundation. Seriously, Faustketeers, if you love these flicks as much as I do and enjoy reading my yearly write ups, you need to put your money where your mouth is and chip in to help preserve American’s Film Noir heritage. Not only do you get to enjoy year round articles and features about the movies and stars we love, you get to feel good about keeping Film Noir alive for the enjoyment of future generations. Take a minute to throw a couple of simoleons their way. I’ll wait.
Now, the movies. First up, the film I was the most curious about, Joseph Losey’s 1951 remake of M.
Fair warning, Faustketeers. There is absolutely no way I’m going to be able to provide fair and balanced commentary on this film. I was so utterly smitten with the scenes of vintage downtown LA that I would have loved it even if it were a total dog. Which it isn’t, but I’ll get to that.
This film opens with a shot that will instantly drop the panties of any vintage Los Angeles aficionado. Serial child killer David Wayne steps over a stack of newspapers decrying his heinous crimes and boards Angel’s Flight, revealing a panoramic nighttime view of the city as the car rises up the hill between Olive and Hill street. From that moment, I was a goner. Never mind all the wonderfully seedy exteriors in and around Bunker Hill and the fact that there was more action inside the beautiful Bradbury building than any other film.
But I realize some of you don’t give a rat’s ass about LA history and want to know how this American remake measures up to the legendary German original. So, here’s the skinny. (There will be spoilers. You’ve been warned.)
A psycho child murderer is on the loose in post war LA. Definitively NOT a child molester in this version, as the American censors would never allow something like that to pass, even if only by implication. He is interestingly gripped by an intense fetish for children’s shoes. I suppose you could get away with that back then, as esoteric fetishes weren’t really understood well enough by the general public to be viewed as sex. Anyway, a local mob boss finds his day to day operations cramped by the heavy police crackdown and sets out to catch the killer himself using his crack team of street level thugs, informants, drug-runners, hookers and bookies. It’s a race between cops and crooks to nab the monster but the crooks get there first, cornering their prey inside the Bradbury building. (!!!) They then conduct an irrational, bloodthirsty farce of a trial, headed up the boss’ bitter, alcoholic lawyer. The tortured madman is given a chance to defend himself and nearly lynched by the angry mob, before being scooped up at the last minute by cops. Meanwhile the drunken lawyer goads the angry crime boss into shooting him, so instead of avoiding trouble by catching the killer, he winds up sharing a ride with him in the paddywagon.
The story has been Americanized in many ways, most profoundly in its reflection of the Red Scare paranoia and the Hollywood Blacklist. Not surprising considering that nearly everyone involved in the making of this film was under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee. In this version, the mock-trial becomes a direct reflection of the Communist witch-trials endured by so many actors and directors of this era. Note the not-so-subtle “KEEP TO RIGHT” sign visible in the above photo, which served as a backdrop to the entire trial scene. There’s also an interesting angle on the way that the then new medium of television sensationalizes and feeds off of the public’s paranoia.
Another difference pointed out by Joe Zilch, one of my fellow Noir City regulars was the fact that in the original, the criminals get involved because there are certain things that are just beyond the pale. Even hardened criminals won’t tolerate the violation and murder of children. In this version, there’s no such moral high ground. The crime boss is in it for his own selfish reasons. The kiddie killer is putting a damper on his cash flow and interfering with business. Joe didn’t like that change, but the more I thought about it, the more I did. Because that’s a far less noble and ultimately more Noirish motivation. After all, there is no moral high ground in Noir City.
The other question I’m sure you all have is how does David Wayne’s performance compare to Peter Lorre?
I thought Wayne was terrific. Driven by shame and guilt, tortured by his own terrible compulsions yet tragic, human and ultimately sympathetic. His performance never seemed campy or over-the-top monstrous to me and I was particularly captivated by the scenes in which he desperately struggles to pull a nail from the wall with bare, bloody fingers after being locked in the mannequin storeroom. Different than Lorre’s take on the character to be sure, but equally compelling in more of a American, Norman Bates kind of way.
In the end, I just flat out loved this movie and make no apologies for it. Real hardcore fans of the Fritz Lang version may never be able to get past the changes, updates and Americanizations of this version, but I say give it a chance. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Host Eddie Muller teased us a little bit in his intro with the possibility that this new print may be used for an eventual digital release. Fingers crossed, because I think this film has been unfairly sidelined and deserves a wider audience. If for no other reason than for the historic Los Angeles street scenes.
Also, on a side note, I will be having nightmares for weeks about the clown balloon the killer buys for one of his victims. That thing is pure evil. Consider yourselves lucky that I was unable to find a photo to share the nightmare with you.
Next and last, our final feature of the year, Ida Lupino’s THE HITCH-HIKER.
Famous for being the one and only Film Noir directed by a woman, this is a tight, gritty little indy film about a couple of regular joes (Edmond O’Brian and Frank Lovejoy) on a weekend fishing trip who stop to pick up a hitch hiker and, well, you know how this is going to go.
Another important pro tip: When in Noir City, never pick up hitch hikers. Especially if it’s William Talman.
The trio make their way down through the desolate side roads of Mexicali as the sadistic serial killer torments his two hostages with a variety of psychological games and head-trips. Including a friendly little high desert target shooting match in which O’Brian is forced to hold up soup cans right next to his face.
In my NIGHTFALL write up, I mentioned how unusual it was that so much of the action took place during the day. Seeing this film again reminded me that it also has a lot of daylight scenes. Based on a true story, it’s suspenseful, lean and compelling, a real character-driven film. It’s far from perfect in a lot of ways and may not be up there with the most enduring classics of the genre, but it’s certainly worth watching. It’s also really amazing to think that such a tough, manly film starring such tough, manly actors was helmed by a woman. But then again Ida Lupino was no ordinary woman.
She was a pioneer in so many ways, a true independent filmmaker. She refused to be relegated to a second class citizen of Hollywood because of her gender, but yet still relied on her gentle, feminine wiles and charm to get the men under her command to come to heel and follow her orders. She was a hell of a woman and one of my personal heroes.
So that’s it for this year, Faustketeers. Thanks for following along at home and I’ll see you next year in Noir City.