Thursday, April 26, 2018

Notes from the Noir Fest: The World in Black and White

It’s always a kick to attend Hollywood’s Noir City festival, hosted by Eddie Muller and Alan Rode, honchos of the Film Noir Foundation. The venue is the historic Egyptian Theatre, which opened in 1922 with a lavish premiere of Michael Curtiz’s Robin Hood, starring Douglas Fairbanks. I’ve just learned that the theatre slightly pre-dates the mania for all things Egyptian that was sparked by the excavation of King Tut’s tomb later that same year. The Egyptian Theatre was exhibitor Sid Grauman’s primo showplace until the opening of the even kitschier Grauman’s Chinese, also on Hollywood Blvd., in 1927. Later the Egyptian sank into seediness, then was purchased from the city of Los Angeles by the American Cinematheque, with a mandate to restore it to its former glory.

When attending a screening at the Egyptian,. I always feel myself immersed in both Old Hollywood glamour and the slightly chaotic, slightly down-at-the-heels atmosphere that is Hollywood Blvd. today. There are fading mural of big-name celebs, and sidewalk stars dedicated to Tinseltown types I’ve never heard of.  There are hustlers and gawkers and street people looking for a handout. There’s the venerable Larry Edmunds Bookshop, dedicated to all things movie-related, where I’m always sure of a warm welcome from Jeff, the long-time proprietor. And, of course, there’s Musso & Frank Grill, as old as the Egyptian, a watering hole where dry martinis and prime steaks have been served to everyone who was anyone in the Golden Age of Hollywood. The menu’s still classic, the booths are still full, and the food is great!

After being impeccably served at Musso’s (thanks for dinner, Alan!), I crossed the boulevard to the Chinese. The evening’s presentations included two Fifties noirs from Paramount Pictures, one of them rarely seen. I just read that Paramount, following some big flops of late, is feeling optimistic on the strength of its new low-budget thriller, A Quiet Place. The movies featured on this evening’s Noir City program are low-budget too, but very different from the rural environment captured by writer/director/star John Krasinski. Like most film noirs they are black-and-white evocations of an urban environment, one in which crime and chicanery abound. Part of the pleasure of a film noir is spotting L.A. landmarks (the Angel’s Flight funincular, Hollywood Forever cemetery, the Beverly Hills Hotel, a boxing match at the old Olympic Auditorium), even in films that theoretically take place somewhere in the mid-west. 

Paramount’s 1952 The Turning Point is not a ballet movie (that would have to wait until 1977), but rather a drama in which idealistic prosecutor Edmund O’Brien is not nearly so effective as hard-boiled journalist William Holden in ferreting out organized crime. Alexis Smith is the love interest          , and the ending is appropriately downbeat. The twisty 1956 crime thriller Scarlet Street features several new Michael Curtiz discoveries who never made it big (seductress Carol Ohmart among them). There’s a jewel heist, lots of double-crossing, and a guest appearance by Nat “King” Cole singing “Never Let Me Go.” 

But the biggest pleasure of old film noirs may be the wonderful mugs they assemble among the supporting cast. There’s craggy Ed Begley as a crime boss, Carolyn Jones in a teeny role as a floozy on the witness stand, E.G. Marshall as a stone-faced cop, and a whole assort of big lugs, skinny weasel-types (Danny Dayton!), and other nogoodniks. Maybe best of all, Broadway’s raucous Elaine Stritch shows up as the leading lady’s gal pal to provide comic relief. 

Life in the noirs always seems so, well, black and white. I can’t wait until next year. 

Noir City continues through Sunday, April 22.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Not Staying Silent About “A Quiet Place”

Last year it was Jordan Peele’s Get Out. This year’s current box-office favorite is another modestly budgeted horror flick, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place. Here’s another case of a well-liked performer (best known until now as the lovestruck Jim on TV’s The Office) branching out into writing and directing, with impressive results. True, A Quiet Place is not a cultural bombshell in the way that Get Out most certainly was. But what Krasinski has achieved is a well-paced little chiller that has audiences on the edge of their seats. 

I came from the Roger Corman world, and so I certainly know my way around horror films and thrillers. (Many of the 170 films on which I worked fall into those categories.) We who know the ins and outs of low-budget filmmaking are well aware that horror is a great place for a novice filmmaker to start. The genre has many built-in fans who expect nothing more than a few good scares. You can shoot an effective horror film with a small cast and a limited number of locations. A Quiet Place enlists a total of 6 actors, It does require a large stretch of rural scenery, but most of the interiors take place in a simple house set. Of course, in a film about everyday people threatened by terrifying monsters, special effects are needed.  But Krasinski follows the classic Corman dictum of barely showing the creatures at the beginning, so that we’re absorbed in the drama long before we acknowledge the scary adversary is just a guy in a rubber suit. 

A Quiet Place never gets too intellectual about the nature of the threat the whole world is apparently facing. Mostly we’re caught up in the story of a family in crisis. Curiously, I was reminded more than once of Pa, Ma, and their daughters staving off locusts, blizzards, disease, and everything else in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. The Ingalls family survived because they were accustomed to doing everything on their own, without help from the outside world. And the family in A Quiet Place, though they have access to electricity and modern electronics, are equally self-sufficient, terrific at improvising fixes when the chips are down. And from the time the movie begins, the chips are very much down: monsters are lurking and they seem unstoppable. 

Horror films thrive on gimmicks, and A Quiet Place has a really good one: the monsters are blind, but their hyper-acute hearing makes it easy for them to track their prey. For the human family, the best defense is to tread as softly as possible. Parents and children walk barefoot indoors and out, and communicate mostly in sign language, They’re well versed in this because their teenaged daughter is deaf. In the manner of classic family dramas everywhere, she’s both the one who feels guiltiest about the dangers they all face and the one who finally figures out the monsters’ fatal weakness. (Spoiler alert for Roger Corman fans: This weakness is not so far removed from the one on which we capitalized in our Concorde Pictures horror flick, The Terror Within.

At a time when our daily lives seem ever noisier, it’s fascinating to be caught up in a film that’s so dependent on silence. Needless to say, the sound design for A Quiet Place is exemplary. It used to be, of course, that movies were entirely silent, but our imaginations filled them with chatter. How ironic that in a modern film with all manner of sound at its disposal, noise is something that we’re hoping not to hear.