One of the greatest pleasures of any film festival comes from meeting other movie lovers and talking with them. That was certainly the case with me this year, meeting several great people that I’ll get to later. Yet oddly enough, I met a fellow noir fan at Noir City who lives practically in my backyard. Haggai – who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, about a 45-minute drive from my house – has been coming to Noir City in San Francisco since 2007. He certainly knows the Noir City ropes as well as his films and I had a great time meeting and talking with him. He invited me to join him for Saturday’s opening movie, Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential (1952).
Karlson – a director I’ve just begun to explore – made three pictures with John Payne (another film noir figure I’ve just begun to explore): Kansas City Confidential, 99 River Street (1953) and Hell’s Island (1955). In all three, Payne plays a sort of everyman who’s either down on his luck or falsely accused of some crime or another as he is in Kansas City Confidential. Payne does wonderful work here, trying to find out who really pulled off the armored car heist he was blamed for. The film includes one of the greatest trios of noir bad guys ever assembled: Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand. (I think it was Eddie Muller who suggested Neville Brand for Secretary of Defense!)
Kansas City Confidential has been available for years as a public domain film (and a less-than-stellar quality print is available for streaming), but this 35mm print looked excellent.
Next, Alan K. Rode introduced Richard Fleischer’s Violent Saturday (1955) a color film presented in CinemaScope, a widescreen format that helped energize 20th Century Fox in the 1950s. Even factoring in CinemaScope, Violent Saturday was produced for just under a million dollars. It initially made its money back (but not by much) and has gained more popularity in recent years. It’s probably not Fleischer’s best film (which I believe to be The Narrow Margin), but it’s quite good, having been somewhat famously labeled a cross between film noir and Peyton Place. Rode commented that Lee Marvin hated this film and his performance in it, but it seems Marvin’s opinion was in the minority. Besides, any film with Sylvia Sidney is worth your time and how many films can you name that feature Ernest Borgnine as an Amish farmer? (Violent Saturday was presented digitally.)
Using his best Don Corleone imitation, Eddie Muller introduced Four Ways Out (La città si difende, 1951). Muller frequently talks about the pleasures of having films introduced to him from other countries and the challenges of seeing them and finding copies to screen for Noir City audiences. Four Ways Out was not one of the easier projects Muller has undertaken. Muller first saw the film on a bootleg DVD and sought to find a 35mm print. He contacted the Italian studio Cinecittà for a print, sent them their money, and got nothing. He contacted Cinecittà again, but the studio informed Muller that they never got the money. Muller finally got things straightened out but two weeks before Noir City 15, he still hadn’t received the print. Muller asked them to ship the print FedEx. “We don’t use FedEx,” the Italians told him. “Ok, send it DHL,” Muller said. “We don’t use DHL. We use Groppi and Sons.” (I believe I have the name right. If you were there and can correct me, please do.)
Then three days before the festival, the print arrived at Muller’s home, which was a bit disconcerting since Muller had never given the Italians his home address. Hmmm….
Four Ways Out features an early story and screenplay credit (shared with three others) by Federico Fellini and a fairly early role for Gina Lollobrigida (her 10th credited film). It also features a heist carried out by four amateur thieves lifting the money collected at a soccer stadium in the middle of a match. During the getaway, the men are forced to split up before they can divide the loot. Since these guys are all amateurs without much of a record, they police don’t have much to go on. Yet the four men have other problems, all of which play out in very interesting ways.
As far as I can tell, Four Ways Out is not available (legitimately) on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, so let’s hope Muller is able to keep the film going on the Noir City circuit.
For Saturday’s final film, Muller selected Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), a film he had originally seen in a film lit class when he was 15, a time when Muller considered all film noir to be completely dark and serious. “It was a watershed moment. I tried not to laugh.” Yet there’s no way to see Big Deal on Madonna Street without busting a gut.
A great companion piece to 1955’s The Ladykillers (which appears later in the Noir City 15 program), Big Deal pokes fun at both heist/caper films and neo-realist cinema with equal measure. A group of small-time criminals consisting of (among others) Marcello Mastroianni and Vittorio Gassman attempt to knock over a pawn shop run by the Italian government. These guys know just enough to screw things up royally, which they do at practically every turn. I don’t know when I’ve laughed so hard… The film also features Italian comic legend Totò and actress Claudia Cardinale. (Big Deal on Madonna Street was presented digitally.)
Four films in one day is no walk in the park, but I felt oddly energized having seen three of the four for the first time. I’ll have more for you soon, so stay tuned.
Photos: Mubi, Twenty Four Frames, Deep Roots Magazine, Cinema Boldini Ferrara, Mubi