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8.4.04

Video Vault Discoveries

I am currently in the process of preparing a performance for The Fremont Centre Theatre's production of The Tangled Snarl and its sequel, Murder Me Once (Frank Somerano and John Rustan). The production, directed by Jim Reynolds (Abe Carver on Days of our Lives), is a 40s detective noir parody. I play a character named "Spuds" Idaho, if that is any indication of the tone of the piece. As part of my research, I have been hunting down noir classics and documentaries on the subject. I was amazed to find how depleted and wanting Amazon, Netflix, and other resources are on the subject. While, yes, Casablanca, The Big Sleep, and Key Largo are one click away, I had a much more difficult time finding films that were deemed classics by the very documentaries that these search engines had available. (Nothing more frustrating than having a noir "expert" praise "definitive" genre films that aren't in print: where’s a Scorsese restoration when you need it?)

More information on Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee:

Laura Randall, Which film remake is next? Eddie Brandt knows, in The Christian Science Monitor (December 12, 2003)



List of Top Film Noir Films (from Internet Movie Database)

Film Noir: Danger & Despair

Film Noir: An Introduction

Le Festival du Film Policier de Cognac (festival dedicated to the polar, or film noir)

Cinetrix reviews The Ladykillers (April 5)
Luckily, I live in Los Angeles, where hidden crypts of archives are tucked away almost as elusively as the titles themselves. The vault I came upon has been an old reliable in years past, named Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee. The place is as quaint as its name. A little, easy-to-miss building tucked away in North Hollywood with painted murals adorning its outside walls in the form of Monster Rushmore (with the likes of Frankenstein, Wolfman, and Nosferatu replacing presidential visages) among others. The inside is a dark, musty archive of wall-to-wall tapes of mainstream and obscure titles. (Obscure would be an understatement: many titles you would swear you invented in some prenatal dream, but here they are.) Many of the tapes are so second-hand they are simply copies with handwritten titles of some late-night PBS taping. These people don't seem to sleep, and one can only imagine how many Tivo receivers they have humming all hours of the night.

If you are intrepid enough to find the place (or have the serendipity to land there during the obscure hours they are open: yes, this place shuts down during lunch), plan to stay awhile. It will overwhelm, excite, and then possess you into endless thoughts of "I wonder if they have..." One feels the recurring urge to summon buried memories of lost titles from childhood in bittersweet hopes of "stumping" the hosts. Get over it. Not to worry, though, they have hot coffee and donuts at the ready and not a clock in sight. Vegas has nothing on these guys.

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The Best of Film Noir (2000)
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L. A. Confidential (1997)
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Miller's Crossing (1990)
Getting back on track, I honed my search back to the titles I initially set out for. (In case you are curious, yes, they have Hawk, the Slayer.) The movies in question were Out of the Past and The Glass Key, and I was both pleased and disturbed they had both the original black and white and colorized editions of the former. Out of the Past was described in the documentary (The Best of Film Noir, see link at left) as the definitive noir classic. (Or, as the writer tells it, the one you'd want on a desert island . . . along with a VCR, TV, and power outlet, but that's another story). How this film is not available in any format is simply baffling. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, the film stands the test of time. Not simply as a genre model, or dated cliché, but as engaging a film as any released today. In fact, the 1984 film, Against All Odds was an attempt to modernize but still doesn't hold the same allure. Tourneur's sense of light and shadow, the streamlined direction of his actors (watching Mitchum act within a compelling width of millimeters), and a timeless sense of pace keep the film from falling into its period restraints. Also noteworthy is seeing Kirk Douglas in only his second film role and making every speck of screen time count.

The other film I acquired, The Glass Key, stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. I am ashamed to say I had yet to be acquainted with either of these actors and have been curious for some time since seeing another noir revamp titled L. A. Confidential make so many references to Ms. Lake. While I was simply looking for inspiration from Ladd, the closest physical model to myself in the genre, I suddenly felt the eerie sensation that I had seen this story before. I had. On the first day of rehearsal I had noted to the director and cast of The Tangled Snarl that a good genre update to watch would be the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing. When one watches The Glass Key, there can be no doubt it is the foundation for Miller's Crossing, as both were derived from Dashiell Hammett's novel The Glass Key.

Let us say the Coens had far better success with their Key update than their recent outing The Ladykillers, which I also took in during this period. While Tom Hanks's performance is a bright spot for the film, it simply cannot save this uninspired remake. (That said, I do prefer to reserve judgement on anything Coen, as many of their films seem to acquire value over repeated viewings. I am already enjoying Intolerable Cruelty more on video after leveling it with mediocrity in the theatre.) Perhaps the Coens are simply running up against their own hype, which they never had to bother with before Fargo and now the cult fave The Big Lebowski. Regardless, The Ladykillers retell will have you rushing home to your Netflix queue in hopes of seeing the original to see what the fuss was about. (If you don't have this resource, get it: it's the Bogie to Tivo's Bacall.) Maybe I'm still burned over the notion you can put a Wayans brother in place of Alec Guinness (even without the "sir"), but in the end one is left thinking how clever Tom Hanks is and nothing else.

Noir seems to be making a comeback as of late. The Egyptian Theatre (American Cinematheque) is playing many of the classics for the next week here in Los Angeles as part of their Noir Series (including The Glass Key). With L. A. Confidential, Memento, and other genre revamps we may be seeing a resurgence in the genre due to Hollywood's sudden turn towards style. Films like Pirates of the Carribean, Far From Heaven, and even the resurrection of the musical seem to indicate audiences' readiness for a move towards a more stylized cinematic experience. Maybe then the archivists will find some of these prints and restore them (the Cinematheque's next series is Movies Not on Video), and guys like me won't have to contribute to the bevy of reviewers who recommend films that aren't available. Unless you can find a Saturday Matinee in your town, and if so, bring them some donuts to put out. They've earned 'em, kid.

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