Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Blood In My Veins

I’m still here. I hadn’t planned on being gone this long but a few things I was working on wound up taking longer than expected and sometimes life just happens. I also took a trip to Santa Fe, just what I needed to clear my head for a few days. It was mostly relaxing but it actually snowed one day, for cryin’ out loud, not the sort of thing I was hoping for. Not to worry, though, I went to the movies. Anyway, along with neglecting the site, this trip meant that I wound up missing a few things here in town, including several nights of the Film Noir Festival at the American Cinematheque. Fortunately I had been able to go a number of times over the past few weeks, an enjoyable reminder of just how much plot some of these films could sometimes cram into the course of 65 minutes with a few of these pictures taking place during one of those nights that seem to last about a hundred hours. My personal favorite of these double bills turned out to be the Anthony Mann-directed pairing of TWO O’CLOCK COURAGE and DESPERATE. The first was one of those enjoyably goofy mysteries taking place over an endless night set in a world with annoying comic relief reporters and cab drivers who look like Ann Rutherford (played by, of course, Ann Rutherford). The second, about a truck driver who winds up way over his head when he flees a robbery that he wasn’t even a part of, was more serious and fatalistic and could almost be considered a minor classic. The night was made more enjoyable by the appearance of COURAGE star Ann Rutherford who had apparently never seen the 1945 film before and in the post-film Q&A told the various tales of playing Scarlet O’Hara’s sister in GONE WITH THE WIND and how she pretty much lied her way into show business.

So just a few hours after landing at LAX on Sunday afternoon I made my way back to the Egyptian for the final night of the festival, billed as a tribute to legendary character actor Paul Stewart (forever known as Raymond the butler in CITIZEN KANE), was a double bill of WALK SOFTLY, STRANGER and CHICAGO SYNDICATE. The second of the pairing, not bad but not great, featured Stewart as crime boss and was most notable for the surprisingly large amount of footage actually shot in Chicago and for the presence of the genuinely striking Allison Hayes of ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN infamy as the female lead.

More interesting than that was WALK SOFTLY, STRANGER, made in 1948 but not released until 1950. Featuring the THIRD MAN team of Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli who apparently shot this first, the film stars Cotten as a man who shows up in the small town of Ashton, claiming to be interested in looking at his childhood home. Saying his name is Chris Hale, he takes a room in the house as a boarder, inquires about a job in the local shoe factory and seeks out the daughter of the shoe magnate, the beautiful Elaine Corelli (Valli) who he claims to have had a faraway crush on when they were children. Elaine takes an interest in Chris and their attraction begins, even as he insists on taking a lowly shipping job in the factory. Of course, we’re never full convinced that he is telling the truth and when he briefly leaves town to go meet his friend Whitey (Paul Stewart) for a certain reason, we find out just who he really is.

A film that is never less than totally engaging, yet it still feels like an even better one is trying to get out, WALK SOFTLY, STRANGER certainly has a plot that is made unpredictable due to its refusal to pin down exactly what the lead’s motivations are and this is one of the best things about it. Exactly how much we should ever trust or believe Cotten’s character is continually open to question. It’s a bit all over the place though, with the hard-nosed noir elements not always mixing easily with the lush approach of the romance which feels more it home in a movie with the name David O. Selznick in the credits. The two leads are responsible for as much of an emotional impact that the story has, yet there’s still something slightly off about the two of them here. Valli certainly doesn’t seem like someone who’d be living in a small town in the Midwest, as much as the script may bend over backwards to come up with reasons and Cotten never seems right playing a tough guy, particularly when he has to spit out nasty dialogue with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He’s just too genteel a presence for that sort of thing to really work. That’s not to say that the two of them don’t lend the movie a surprising amount of genuine weight and some of the most effective moments of the film are purely silent reactions of Valli at various points, particularly a very long, slow fade out on her early on (I’m trying to see the woman who also appeared in SUSPIRIA in these shots, but it’s not easy). These bits don’t have very much to do with the noir aspect of the film, but they do add an emotional layer to it that it wouldn’t have otherwise with lesser talents. That said, Stewart, playing a cowardly weasel, is actually given the most surprisingly human moment in the entire film when his character, at the end of his rope cuddles a small dog as if looking for some sort of solace in the hole he’s dug himself into.

It’s that type of touch that sets WALK SOFTLY, STRANGER slightly apart from the pack. It’s not the most snappy noir ever but the small-town setting in one of those towns that seemingly existed only in movies combined with the relationship between the two leads gives it a feel that makes it more endearing in its melancholy way as it goes along. Running only 81 minutes, it’s the sort of surprise that the Cinematheque seems to always turn up during these festivals and it was a thrill to see, even with its flaws. Here’s looking forward to the next Noir Fest that they run. As for me, I’ll try to be back here soon.

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