Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Writers, Teachers...Screwballs!

The Northwest Film Center has been running a film noir series since November and I decided I was in need of a nice strong dose of snappy dialogue, no-good dames, hardboiled gumshoes, and tank-like Buick Roadmasters (or similar). I was primed and ready to go see City of Fear (1959), in which an escaped convict mistakenly steals a vial of radioactive cobalt thinking it’s heroin. Not only would it have big cars and private dicks, as far as I was concerned, it was guaranteed to be a laff riot—chock full of shaky “scientific” theories about all things “atomic." The cheese factor was bound to be off the charts! Sadly, B found some reviews that convinced him that it was a terribly, terribly bad movie and refused to go see it.

As a compromise we went to see The Dark Past (1948) instead. Here's a synopsis: An escaped convict (William Holden with a brush cut that I found unaccountabley distracting) and his cronies break into the weekend cottage of psychology professor Lee J. Cobb and take him and his guests hostage. Meh. It was pretty tedious and static. About the only "action" the film offered was some harried pacing back and forth in front of a fireplace. There was little snappy dialogue except for when William Holden was interrogating Cobb and his guests, all of whom were writers or professors. After Holden finished questioning them, he threw up his arms in disgust and declared, “Writers, teachers...screwballs!”

I found that line to be extremely hilarious. You don’t hear the word “screwball” nearly enough these days, although it was uttered plenty of times by William Holden throughout the movie. And Lee J. Cobb called him on it, too, pointing out that he applied the screwball label to anything he didn’t like or understand. In the end Lee J. Cobb works his psychology professor magic on Holden by interpreting a laughably symbolic nightmare that Holden has been having since he was a kid. And—surprise—it turns out that Holden has blocked out a childhood memory of killing his father and the reason he keeps killing people is that deep in his subconscious every time he kills someone he’s killing his father. And now that he knows that, he’ll never kill again. It makes perfect sense! If only society would place more faith in psychology there’d be a lot less crime! Yep—that was the film’s preposterous conclusion/message.

Since The Dark Past was such a clunker, my noir needs remained unsatisfied. On Saturday, we made a second noir attempt and went to see Side Street: Where Temptation Lurks (1950), starring Montgomery Clift knock-off and virtual nonentity, Farley Granger. Farley, or Farfela (as his pal Shelley Winters referred to him in her memoir), is a part-time mailman in New York City. He's so low on the Post Office totem pole, he doesn’t even have a uniform. He just delivers the mail in shirtsleeves and the 1950 equivalent of Dockers.

Anyway, poor Farfela lives with his pregnant wife in her parent’s apartment and agonizes over his poverty and the ignominy of having to sponge off his inlaws. One day while delivering mail to a lawyer’s office, the lawyer puts a big envelope of money into a file cabinet right in front of Farfela's eyes. Hmmmm. A few days later, when Farfela delivers the mail, the lawyer is out, having helpfully left a note saying he'd be gone for a full 15 minutes. Farfela executes a number of facial contortions to let us know that he is thinking about stealing that money and then he tries to open the file cabinet. Locked. Shucks!

He walks back out into the hall and what does he see? An axe—just sitting there in the hall! How convenient! He hacks open the drawer and steals the envelope. Turns out it contains 30 Gs! Wow—now he can get his wife a private room at the hospital! He goes home, proudly hands his wife $200, and then makes up a story about how he bumped into an old army chum who gave him a job in Schenectady. How likely is that?

For reasons that aren't fully explained (in fact not explained at all), he goes to stay in a hotel where rooms cost only 75 cents, I guess to think things over. Question: Why stay in such a cheap joint when you have 30 grand? He stays there for a few days sort of writhing on the bed and decides he’s got to give the money back. He then makes the screwball mistake of returning to the crooked lawyer’s office and fesses up—giving him the shady lawyer his correct name and even his address! The lawyer, who’s mixed up in all sorts of dealings with the underworld, claims no money was ever stolen but immediately sends a heavy to tail him. Poor befuddled Farfela goes to retrieve the money, which he had previously wrapped up and trustingly left with a bartender he hardly knew, telling him it was a surprise gift for his wife (a nightgown). While Farfela was cooling his heels at that 75-cent hotel, the bartender opened the package, sold the bar to new owners, and vanished—with the money. All this was accomplished in about 48 hours.

I don’t think I need to do a full recap of the movie, but I hope I have conveyed how superior (and more true to the genre) Side Street: Where Temptation Lurks is to The Dark Past. A few highlights:

  • Farfela goes on the lam after seeing his mug splashed across the front pages of every newspaper in town—as the chief suspect in the murder of the bartender.
  • While on the lam, he breaks into the maternity ward to tell his wife he’s OK and has to hide under the bed when a big scary nurse shows up.
  • He meets up with a lounge singer reeking of ragwater, bitters, and blue ruin* and liquors her up with a bottle of Dubonnet so he can get the scoop on her thuggish ex-boyfriend.
The movie ends with Farfela madly driving a taxi through the streets of New York, while the thuggish ex-boyfriend points one gun at Farfela's head and with another gun shoots willy-nilly at the coppers chasing them. Two fisted!

So mission accomplished. I got my noir fix. And there was plenty of cheese for everyone.

*Thanks to Tom Waits for that highly descriptive phrase.


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