I ask you, how many times in your life have you ever read or heard the words “Walter Matthau Double Feature”? You can’t exactly envision people lining up and down the block for such a double bill, but I’d say the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center brought in well over 100 people for both The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) and Charley Varrick (1973) last night.
2017 marks the ninth year Noir City has stopped in the Washington DC area, thanks to the AFI Silver and the Film Noir Foundation. And you can’t talk about Noir City without talking about Eddie Muller, who was on hand to introduce both films. Introducing Pelham, Muller commented that although the criminals in heist movies almost never get away with it (certainly not during the era of the Production Code), we always pull for them. All the planning, the details… You just want to see them make it. Muller also commented that he chose to go beyond the classic noir era in choosing films for his heist theme, since so many films from that subgenre eventually start looking alike and repeating themselves. So for this festival we’re treated to films outside the accepted genre years, in this case, stretching into the 70s (and beyond as we move through the festival).
“Tonight is Walter Matthau Night at Noir City,” Muller announced to a room full of noir fans. Matthau transitioned from comedic roles in the 60s to something of a counter-culture leading man, which is evident in both of these films. Pelham is not only a superb heist movie, it’s also a time capsule of New York City in the early 70s.
Pelham was based on a novel by John Godey (pronounced like, but not to be confused with, gangster John Gotti), a writer who came up with one of the all-time great titles for a crime novel, Never Put Off Till Tomorrow What You Can Kill Today. Muller also stated that “Joseph Sargent directed the hell out of this.” You could also say that David Shire wrote the hell out of the music with a superb jazz score that never lets up. (You can read my thoughts on the film here; just be prepared to scroll down a bit.)
Film Noir Foundation member Katherine Majeed got things started for our second feature, encouraging audience members to support the Film Noir Foundation, “The greatest cause in the history of humanity.” (I always love hearing her say that!) Katherine was followed by Todd Hitchcock, Director of Programming at the AFI Silver, who brought Eddie Muller back to the podium. For those who many not know, the Film Noir Foundation’s purpose is to find and restore lost film noir movies. All of the money from this festivals and the merchandise sold there goes into film noir restoration and preservation. The FNF’s latest restoration, announced Muller, is The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950), directed by Felix E. Feist starring Lee J. Cobb. The film will air on TCM in June and will be released on Blu-ray shortly after.
If you’ve never seen the film, small-time operator Charley Varrick (Matthau) and friends decide to rob a small-time New Mexico bank, but discover they’ve actually made off with mob money. The film is loaded with a great supporting cast including Joe Don Baker, Andrew Robinson, Felicia Farr, Normal Fell, John Vernon, William Schallert and more. It’s pure entertainment like they don’t make anymore.
Muller mentioned that the film’s director Don Siegel was clearly instrumental in the development of Clint Eastwood as a director, but that a large part of the credit for the success of many of those Siegel/Eastwood films comes from screenwriter Dean Riesner. Riesner not only worked on several of those scripts (including Coogan’s Bluff, which had been a mess before Riesner took it on), but he also supplied some of Eastwood’s career-making lines such as “You’ve got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?” Yet most people (including me, before last night) don’t realize that Riesner was a child actor in several silent films including Charlie Chaplin’s The Pilgrim (1923).
Riesner co-wrote Charley Varrick for Clint Eastwood, but Eastwood turned it down, reluctant to play a criminal. Matthau got the role and Riesner reconfigured the part for him. (Can you just imagine seeing Clint Eastwood as Charley Varrick?) Seeing the film, Eastwood thought he’d missed a great opportunity and did play a criminal the following year in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (which plays at the festival Sunday, Oct. 22 and Tuesday, Oct. 24).
I’ll have more to report after today, as the festival presents Out of the Past, Any Number Can Win, Once a Thief, Sexy Beast and Point Blank. Stay tuned!
Photos not my own: The Dissolve, The Movie Scene