Eddie Muller made his first Noir City DC 2016 introduction on Friday night by focusing on the larger scope of this year’s festival: the Art of Darkness, a theme that explores not just the arts in film noir, but more importantly the loneliness and isolation of being an artist, the terrors of collaboration, the darkness of the creative soul. Good stuff. Although Muller noted that some of the 23 films shown at Noir City DC are straight-up noir movies that have little or nothing to do with the arts, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) certainly does. (Most of what you’ll read here are paraphrases of Muller’s comments, some of which I couldn’t take down fast enough.)
Muller said that this is one of the best movies ever made about Hollywood, following on the heels of Sunset Boulevard (1950), although ironically the original story took place in the theater world. Thinking that All About Eve (1950) had probably covered the behind-the-scenes drama of the theater, the producers transplanted their story to Hollywood.
Hollywood producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) is something of a combination of David O. Selznick and Val Lewton, as we see through the flashback eyes of three of Shields’s coworkers: director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), movie star Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell). The casting of Douglas was all director Vincente Minnelli’s idea. MGM wanted either Robert Mitchum or Clark Gable to play Shields, but Minnelli insisted on Douglas. The MGM suits had their reservations, thinking Douglas too intense, but Muller said Minnelli asked Douglas to “dial down the intensity and dial up the charm.”
Lana Turner was another matter. Although most would not consider Turner a great actress, she headlined this film and does quite well, with Muller stating that this was probably her finest performance. In order to get better takes from Turner, Minnelli would frequently use “inner game” psychology, saying something like, “Lana, we need to shoot this scene again. There were some technical problems. This time, could you try it this way…?” In Turner’s autobiography, she mentioned that she’d never been on a set that had so many technical problems…
Muller also mentioned that both this film and the next one on the program, The Killers (1946), both borrow the same basic “looking backward, examining a man’s life through flashback” structure as Citizen Kane (1941). A conscious decision or an homage? You be the judge.
“I despise the word ‘seminal,’” said Muller as he introduced the next film, The Killers, calling the word both misused and creepy, “but you’re about to see a seminal film!” Muller also mentioned that had he lived longer, Mark Hellinger could have become the greatest film noir producer of all time. (Hellinger also produced They Drive by Night, High Sierra, Brute Force, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, and other films. He died at age 44 from coronary thrombosis.) The screenplay credit is given to Anthony Veiller, but the writing was actually done by John Huston and Richard Brooks. Huston couldn’t be given credit because at the time the war was still going on. Brooks was mentored by Huston, but Universal wasn’t about to give a rookie screenwriter credit. (Brooks did, however, get a percentage of the film, which was probably pretty sweet.)
Hellinger also snagged Robert Siodmak, Muller’s choice (and mine) as the greatest director of film noir. “Siodmak,” said Muller, “has a spellbinding, seductive style” and calls The Killers “the Citizen Kane of film noir.” I certainly can’t argue with that. From top to bottom, it’s an exceptional film featuring a superb score by Miklós Rózsa, gorgeous noir cinematography by Elwood Bredell, and a whole slew of great actors, including noir regulars Charles McGraw, William Conrad, Sam Levene, Jack Lambert, Edmond O’Brien, and the two leads Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner.
Before the film ever started, two things happened that delighted me. First, a group of a dozen teenagers came into the theater (and they seemed to love the film), proving that film noir knows no boundaries of age or anything else, for that matter. Film noir is not just for old folks like me. There’s something there that spoke to those teenagers and continues to speak to anyone who’s willing to watch film noir.
Second, just after Eddie Muller finished his introduction and left the podium, I could still hear him talking about The Killers as he made his way down the aisle with Katherine Majeed from the Film Noir Foundation and Todd Hitchcock, director of programming at AFI Silver. You could tell he wanted to say more about the film and could probably have talked on it all night. As he passed my seat, I saw him shaking his head, looking at the floor. “Man,” he said, “I really love this movie.” I think we all do. It’s why we’re here.
Photos: The Culture Trip, Film Society of Lincoln Center, Elvis Echoes of the Past, Criterion