Switching gears from pretty little Alan Ladd to the big, butch slab of manliness that is Sterling Hayden might have given me testosterone whiplash. In a good way, of course. Hayden isn’t much of an actor, but he’s still one of my all time Noir City favorites. I would watch him read the menu at a Waffle House. Throw fallen angel Gloria Grahame into the mix and I’m hooked.
Only in the 50s could you get away with a story like this. A story in which police brutality is actually a good thing.
Upstanding baker and family man Al Willis (Gene Barry) is picked up drunk with no ID and gets roughed up by a bunch of cops. He snaps and fights back, vowing revenge, but is eventually released when he sobers up and proof of his identity is provided.
Over the next few days, the cops who beat Willis are turning up dead. Hayden plays Joe Conroy, a detective who is deeply suspicious of the supposedly innocent baker. Conroy gets fired for harassing Willis, but he still can’t let it go and starts tailing the baker on his own time, hiring a private eye to help him out. Is Conroy a psycho cop with an irrational vendetta, or is he on to something?
Things get interesting when Willis tells his wife and infant daughter that he needs to get away for a few days to recover from the trauma of the beatings and harassment. Instead of going to Palm Springs or Pismo Beach, he heads for a shady border town and into the passionate arms of a bruised songbird, played by Gloria Grahame. Conroy follows him and complication ensue.
No real spoilers, but I will say this. Gene Barry is fantastic in this role, but like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, he comes off as an unhinged mad-dog killer from frame one. You don’t buy him as an innocent everyman for a second. But the truth is, you don’t have to in order to enjoy this film.
Oh, and did I mention that Gloria Grahame sings a torch song called “Ace in the Hole?” Seriously, you need this movie.
Next up was Suddenly, with Hayden and Frank Sinatra
Before I get into detail about the film itself, there was a pretty major catastrophe relating to this screening that I need to address.
Before this film started, Eddie Muller got up and gave an impassioned speech about the inevitable shift to digital projection and how, no matter how much we all love film, we have no choice but to roll with the change-over and start considering including digital prints in the Noir City festival. This film, Suddenly, has no 35mm print available. Because it’s in the public domain, there are dozens of lousy, muddy dupes out there, but a friend of Muller’s had meticulously crafted a beautiful, crisp digital copy from an original European fine grain print that, when projected correctly, should be indistinguishable from film.
Because this was the first digital print shown at Noir City, Muller asked us all to share our honest thoughts and opinions. But he wanted us to really watch the film and seriously consider the quality of the image, not just deliver a knee-jerk reaction against new technology. I was totally down, ready to open my mind and embrace the future.
The projection was bad.
I’m not familiar with the technology so I can’t say exactly what went wrong, but it’s my understanding that the problem was not with the print itself, but with the projection. As a result, every highlight was crawling with digital noise. It was almost unwatchable, but I hung in there for you, my three readers, so I could come back and report on the massacre.
The worst thing about this problem was that it was apparently fixable. Only the usual crackerjack projectionist was not there and they had some part-timer filling in who had absolutely no idea what to do. There’ve been several projection problems this year, mostly fumbled reel changes, but this was absolutely unacceptable. Off all the nights for something like this to go wrong, it had to be last night, when we were all supposed to be making this great leap into the future.
The real tragedy was that when you looked between the glimmering patches, you could see that the print was absolutely beautiful.
I could go on and on about this clusterfuck, and we did last night, closing a neighboring bar after the screening. But I’ll just move on to the film itself.
This was supposed to be Sterling Hayden’s night, but Sinatra stole the show in this film. He is absolutely brilliant as a psycho killer planning to assassinate the President. In fact, I think this may be his best role, or at least my personal favorite. I loved the way his sharp, angular face and lean, wiry street-dog build paired up against the affable and beefy Hayden.
A reoccurring theme that carried through from the previous film was the positive portrayal of righteous violence on the part of law enforcement. Probably not the most PC of messages, especially when combined with all the man-handling and verbal abuse of women in both films. At one point in Suddenly, the grandfather character tells Hayden’s love interest, played by Nancy Gates to “Stop being a woman!” But misogyny is nothing new in Noir City.
Because it’s in the public domain, this film is very easy to find. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it.
Tonight, a Cornell Woolrich TRIPLE feature! Phantom Lady, Black Angel and The Window. I’ll be bringing a blanket and a picnic basket.