Noir Is Beautiful 

Heists, marlin spikes, psycho killers, and big blondes -- welcome to the Parkway's Film Noir Fest.

The "film noir craze" has now officially been around long enough to graduate to full certified cult status, a pursuit somewhere to the north of biker flicks and Japanese splatter films but not yet as exalted as, say, the worship of Buster Keaton. But give it time.

Once the province of would-be gumshoes who wore trench coats in the summertime and called each other "Kiddy-Cat," noirism was hampered at first by its somewhat geeky reputation as an all-male fraternity of imitation Bogies. But scholarship and imaginative programming of the amazing noirs of Ida Lupino -- not to mention the championing of such femmes fatales as Audrey Totter and Marie Windsor -- have opened up the membership and effectively closed the gender gap. At the typical noir festival these days, you'll spot as many hard-boiled dolls as stand-up guys. World-weariness and futile struggle against corruption and treachery are things any reasonably aware 21st-century culture consumer can relate to.

As in any more or less serious category of film genre study, you can go into noir as deeply as you want and never touch bottom. Bookstore shelves are jammed with the work of specialists plunging bravely into the past, and the home video market is fast catching up to the demand for post-WWII shadows-and-angst. Still, there's nothing quite like seeing noir on the big screen. The Bay Area's leading noir expert, Alameda author Eddie Muller, definitively captured its appeal in his book Dark City, then went on in Dark City Dames to bring overdue recognition to noir actresses. Muller has lent his talents to numerous prominent noir events on the West Coast, but this month's Film Noir Fest at the Parkway Theater in Oakland is like catching him on the front porch in his bathrobe. Intimate, more informal.

Muller, the reigning Nabob of Noir, and the Parkway's Will "The Thrill" Viharo, a tireless devotee of retro rarities, program the Parkway's noir fest to the widest possible audience, with a few rare nuggets thrown in for good measure. This outreach approach is commendable. It recognizes that there are still plenty of potential noir fans out there who haven't been exposed to such classics as Double Indemnity, Dead Reckoning, and Gun Crazy. Never mind that the fest opens with a movie that isn't really noir, Angels with Dirty Faces -- an archetypal 1938 Warner Bros. Irish-American urban melodrama featuring tough guys James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, righteous priest Pat O'Brien, slum cutie Ann Sheridan, and the slapstick antics of the Dead End Kids -- and then proceeds into director Don Siegel's neo-noir '70s with Clint Eastwood and Dirty Harry. Angels has hoods and shadows, Harry has corruption and a maniac. Make that two maniacs ("Do ya feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?").

Longtime Dark City dwellers will naturally gravitate to the relative rarities on the schedule: Robert Parrish's The Mob (September 16), Robert Wise's Born to Kill (September 20-22), Paul Wendkos' The Burglar (September 23), and Phil Karlson's 5 Against the House (September 30).

Born to Kill and The Burglar are both notable for the over-the-top nastiness -- even by noir standards -- of their anti-leading men, psycho killer Lawrence Tierney and off-putting, weaselly crook Dan Duryea respectively. By contrast, The Mob (1951) is an ensemble piece. Sour-faced Broderick Crawford stars as Johnny Damico, a police detective who goes undercover as a longshoreman to break up waterfront rackets -- and also to beat up a procession of goons and gorillas. Of which The Mob has an oversupply. Ernest Borgnine, Neville Brand, and John Marley (The Godfather's horse fancier) are among those who feel Crawford's heat, and yes, that's Charles Bronson as a surly dockworker.

With its on-location seaport grittiness (the setting is nonspecific, but it was evidently shot in and around San Pedro and the port of Los Angeles), The Mob might make a nice double bill with On the Waterfront. Screenwriter William Bowers' dialogue coulda been a contenduh, for sure ("You must be part of my hangover" or "I need to go underground, like gophers and communists"), especially coming from Crawford's unlovely mug. Actor Crawford belongs to the ultrarealistic school of leading men; it would be easy to mistake him for an actual stevedore or an underpaid, overworked cop, and his banter with the dockside dive bartender about the supposed New Orleans specialty, white wine and a beer, has a convincing working-stiff flavor. The young Borgnine swings his weight around, too, as Joe Castro the crime boss, but as usual Brand steals every scene he's in, as Gunner the strong-arm enforcer. Actress Lynne Baggett has a good scene with Crawford in a bar, but there's not much for a woman to do on this waterfront.

Kim Novak, on the other hand, is heavily involved with the heist mechanics of 5 Against the House. Novak, in one of her first screen roles, plays the love interest and coconspirator in director Phil Karlson's unlikely story of a group of college buddies who try to spice up their weekend by knocking over Harold's Club casino in Reno. The pic is a far cry from Karlson's best -- Kansas City Confidential, The Brothers Rico, 99 River Street -- but it's amusing to see how easy it is for the gang of Guy Madison, Kerwin Matthews, wisecracking Alvy Moore, and brooding Korean War vet Brian Keith to stroll into Harold's in cowboy suits and false beards and walk out with a bundle of dough. Didn't they see Casino? Nope, this movie was made in 1955, when "Midwestern U." students flocked to nightclubs to hear Novak's lounge-singer character Kay do a slinky rendition of "Life of the Party," and Nevada casino workers like William Conrad would actually fall for the "jockey in a box" trick. If the dudes from Road Trip tried a similar stunt, they'd be carried out on platters. Ah, the '50s.

Along the way, Keith does a nice job playing Brick, a man in the throes of violent war-related stress. Before he was relegated to the Walt Disney stock company, the versatile actor handled this type of disturbed-loser role with great style. His climactic scene in the auto garage -- dig those crazy car elevators -- shows some of the Karlson visual flair that's mostly lacking from 5 Against the House. The Karlson and Parrish noirs are essentially B movies, meaning their thrills come in shorter, more subtle bursts than in high-powered fare like Double Indemnity.

One day, every single film noir ever made will finally have been screened at a fest -- and when that happens, Eddie Muller, who appears in person to cohost several of the Parkway noirs, will probably be there.

All the films are shown in 35mm prints in their original aspect ratio. Admission is a reasonable $5 (Thursday night Thrillville screenings are $6), and as always at the Parkway, you must be 21 and over -- so you can legally enjoy your white wine and beer. Special thanks to Marc Dolezal of Danger & Despair in San Francisco for research on the Parrish and Karlson films.

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