NOIR CITY: Heat Lightning and Safe in Hell

So this is it. The end of the line. The last write up on the last two films from this year’s Film Noir Festival. Let’s dive right in, shall we.

First (in this write up, third on the bill) HEAT LIGHTNING.

220px-Heat_Lightning_FilmPosterIn a Victorville filling station, a world-weary female mechanic with a past  is trying to keep her boy-crazy kid sister from going down the same path. Of course they get mixed up with an assortment of shady characters who are just passing through, including a couple of bank robbers on the lam. One of whom turns out to be the mechanic’s old flame. Needless to say, complications ensue. Including murder.

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This high-desert proto-noir was my fave of the night, a must see in my not-so-humble opinion. It has all the elements that would eventually evolve into Film Noir and both the female lead characters are strong, complex and fiercely independent. Aline MacMahon is surprisingly unglamorous and yet strangely compelling as the mechanic with her stained overalls and her suspicious desert squint. Saucy Ann Dvorak is also fantastic as the rebellious little sister. I even liked the two fast-talking tramps taking a married professor for the ride of his life and the comedy angle of the diamond-encrusted and dipsomaniacal divorcees who called each other “Tinkles” and “Feathers.” This is, at its core, a women’s movie. The men seem only exist as secondary plot devices for the female characters to react against.

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Ten years later, this same flick would have been a lot bleaker and less overtly sexy. Not to mention the whole getting away with crime thing. Apparently this one just managed to sneak in under the wire before the Hays Code crackdown, which makes it even more of a historical curiosity. Mistress Christa says check it out.

Last in the line up was the sweaty tropical sleazefest SAFE IN HELL.

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New Orleans prostitute Gilda thinks she’s going out on a regular gig when she discovers the trick is the same man who raped her and forced her into her current line of work. She won’t let him touch her and brains him with a liquor bottle, accidentally starting a fire and leaving her wanted for murder.

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When her sailor boyfriend finds out what has befallen her while he was at sea, he agrees to help her escape by taking her to a tropical island with no extradition laws. They exchange private wedding vows in an empty church and then he ships out, leaving her with only disreputable, horny criminals for company. Once again, complications ensue.

I think my favorite character is the smarmy, sweaty and satan-esque Mr Bruno, the island’s judge, jailor and executioner.

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Also the lead character of Gilda is a ferocious and fearless little spitfire. But have to say I was a little disappointed by how much weight is put on her being a “good girl” once she’s on the island. Still, it leads to an incredibly dark ending in which

(spoilers again, kids!)

she would rather be executed than locked up by Mr Bruno and forced back into prostitution. I loved the scene where she promises her naive sailor husband that everything will be fine and sends him away believing that she’ll follow before walking off to the gallows.

This is a fun one, and these two final films on the bill would make a great introduction to anyone who (like me) isn’t all that familiar with the pre-code era in Hollywood.

So that’s it for this year, Faustketeers. And remember, if you like these write ups, don’t just read em. Help make them possible by tossing a couple of clams to the Film Noir Foundation so they can continue to preserve and restore the films we all love for future generations to enjoy.

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1 Response to NOIR CITY: Heat Lightning and Safe in Hell

  1. mike schlesinger says:

    For the record, HEAT LIGHTNING was indeed remade a mere seven years later as HIGHWAY WEST. And yes, as expected, it’s rather toothless compared to the original, though still watchable. HEAT has been a favorite of mine for ages, and it was swell to finally see it in a gorgeous 35mm print.

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