April 13, 2010

New York Noir: Life At The Film Forum


By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor

The Film Forum on West Houston Street in lower Manhattan used to show an occasional series of "essential" films noir--the big stuff we all know, like "The Maltese Falcon," "The Big Sleep," and "Double Indemnity."

A few years ago they tried a series of B-Noirs--more obscure low-budget programmers and tawdry little crime dramas about tough guys and loose gals with too much past and too little future. That worked so well they did a second series, then a series showcasing films made from stories and novels by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich and James M. Cain. Now they're running five weeks of New York-based 40s and 50s noirs plus more recent neo-noirs set in the Naked City.


As usual, it's the rarely seen, rarely televised, never-to-be-released-on-DVD scrappy items that everyone lines up for. Seniors pay only $5.50 and on a 90-degree afternoon in August, where else can you sit in near-Arctic level air conditioning and sometimes watch over five hours of movies perfectly projected onto a squared screen with a correct 1.33-to-1 aspect ratio? It's my kind of venue.


The NYC series began July 27th and runs through August 30th. Last week's triplebill was better than the previous week's triple bill. "The Killer That Stalked New York" (1950) has an intriguing premise--a smallpox-carrying femme fatale (Evelyn Keyes). She's married to fellow diamond smuggler Charles Korvin, who's carrying on with her sister (a drop-dead gorgeous Lola Albright, who looks about 21). The picture, though routine, has a nice look and in certain tense scenes a solid noir sensibility. The ending takes place on a window ledge high over a midtown street.


"Dr. Broadway" (1942) was the directorial debut of Anthony Mann, one of noir's heavy-hitter directors ("T-Men," "Raw Deal,"). "Dr. Broadway" is a comic noir not unlike The Thin Man series; it's dopey and you can see why MacDonald Carey in the lead would never go very far, but it, too, has a pleasant look and feel. Carey plays a Times Square physician who keeps talking a blonde cutie who can't get a show-biz job out of jumping from hotel room ledges. (Practically the same setting as that smallpox thriller.) The audience was attentive, murmuring its recognition of long-dead character pros like J. Carroll Nash, Edward Cianelli, and Sid Melton.


"Street of Chance" (1942) adapts what was the genesis of Woolrich's "Black Curtain" and is difficult to follow as it's about an amnesia victim who keeps trying to reconstruct an ever-changing past. It's Burgess Meredith's movie and he's such a cipher, befuddled and lackluster. even with a perky Claire Trevor prodding him along. Amnesia is a favorite noir theme, along with betrayal, alienation, revenge, and a cynical, deadly fatalism. The print was faded, and at the Film Forum what's faded sometimes gets restored or remastered into a new print. What's faded that's staying faded is likely to be the best remaining 35mm print on the planet.

Once again it was a full house of mostly single senior citizens stumbling over each other in the dark. One gets the feeling it's the same bunch of retired loners who are doing the whole series and chatting a bit with the people next to them because it's their one contact with other humans. (This is different from the typical afternoon audiences at The Museum of Modern Art who come in to watch 30's and 40s American musicals and dramas. Many of them are a tight little retired community of Hollywood dress extras from the era who migrated back to Manhattan, and they come to spot themselves and their friends in the crowd and nightclub scenes, which they frequently do and then buzz about for half a reel.)


The great thing about the Film Forum is it's the only theater in the world that between noirs doesn't run previews or ads, but keeps the lights dim and plays recordings of soundtrack dialogue from David Goodis' "Dark Passage." So we get to sit in the frozen dark and listen to Bogart and the San Francisco cab driver do their long scene. Then they play the track of the scene in which Agnes Moorehead, the bad lady, snaps at Bogart. I was reminded that in Nathaniel Rich's great little book, "San Francisco Noir," we learn that the woman who today lives in the third-floor apartment in the Malloch Building on Montgomery Street where Bogart hides out with Lauren Bacall in that 1946 "Dark Passage" now has a cardboard cutout of Bogart propped up in her front window, ever vigilant.

Listening to passages from "Dark Passages" between movies at the Film Forum was arguably more enjoyable than anything up on screen for five hours. But hey, these are the dog days of August, it's too hot to plow, and I don't dance.


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