Noir City 5: Days Two and Three
Cry Danger (1951, Dir. Robert Parish
Special Guest: Richard Earlman
Abandoned (1949, Dir. Joseph M. Newman)
Hell's Half Acre (1954, Dir. John Auer)
99 River Street (1953, Dir. Phil Karlson)
Hell's Half Acre
The San Francisco Film Noir Festival
Friday, January 26th-Sunday, February 4th, 2007
The Castro Theatre
San Francisco, CA
For a complete listing of the screenings go to:
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Day Two of the San Francisco Film Noir Festival featured a double bill of films written by Bill Bowers. Bowers' plots may have been run of the mill, but his dialog was some of the best in noir. In the first film, Cry Danger (available on VHS from Republic) the terminally sarcastic Dick Powell stars as Rocky. A phony alibi has recently sprung him form the pen where he was serving a life sentence for a murder and robbery. When he gets out he immediately sets out to expose Castro, a ruthless thug who he thinks actually committed the robbery. He also wants the $50, 0000 he feels Castro owes him for time he did in jail for Castro's crime.
Supposedly Rocky wound up in jail because he was framed; I think it was his complete inability to answer any question without making a smart ass rejoinder, regardless of the gravitas of the situation, that actually landed him in jail. When Castro asks him, after an initial payoff of $4,000, "What do you plan to do with all the dough?" Rocky responds "I plan to get an operation, so I can play the violin again." His semi-alcoholic sidekick, portrayed by the great character actor Richard Erdman who attended the noir festival, is equally as witty. When cutie blonde trailer trash, Darlene sees him take a morning shot of bourbon she asks, "You drinkin' that stuff so early?" He replies, "Listen, doll girl, when you drink as much as I do, you gotta start early."
The second half of the double feature was Abandoned (not available on VHS or DVD) which Bowman script doctored adding much need wit to a fairly turgid story of a woman, Paula, who comes to the big city to find her missing sister. She finds out her sister was killed by some very nasty racketeers running an illegal adoption ring. Along with a charming local reporter, an unwed mother and the D.A. she busts up the racket. The real standout in the film was Raymond Burr as the corrupt private investigator who plays both sides against the middle. The scene where the racketeers torture him with a pack of matches is discreetly shot but incredibly brutal.
On day three, the festival screened two Evelyn Keys films, neither on VHS or DVD, Hell's Half Acre and 99 River Street. Keyes left me unimpressed as an actress, but the two films were great. In Hell's Half Acre, Keyes plays Donna Williams. Donna travels to Honolulu and searches the sleazy tenement district, Hell's Half Acre, for Chet Chester an ex-racketeer hunting down the killer of his girlfriend. Donna believes Chet may be her husband reported missing in action twelve years earlier during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
What makes this film great is not the leads or the plot but a triumvirate of character actors giving completely unrestrained performances as the heavies. First, there's Phillip Ahn, a great actor, whose career followed the path of most Asian American actors of the classic period: Charlie Chan film, Japanese baddie, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Korean soldier, servants/small shop owners, tong leader and finally one of David Carradine's mentors on Kung Fu. In Hell's Half Acre, he portrays the lead bad guy with great gusto. In this pot boiler, he betrays the lead, murders two people with his bare hands and carries on a torrid affair with a married white woman played by Marie Windsor. Marie steals the show as Ahn's mistress. She's delightfully trashy and has a great drunk scene. Jessie White plays her slovenly husband. Better known for comedy, he strikes just the right balance between pathetic loser and menacing sleaze ball. He's quite effective in a scene where he drunkenly attempts to assault Keyes.
By the way, if you think I'm kidding about Love is A Many-Splendored Thing, then check out the scene where the heroine introduces William Holden to her Chinese family- it's a who's who of 1950s Asian American actors.
In 99 River Street, other more compelling characters overwhelm Keyes. It's really John Payne's film. Like Dick Powell, he transitioned from light musical comedy to film noir after the war. He gives a surprisingly complex performance as an embittered ex-boxer who simmers with barely controlled rage. He drives a cab, dreams of owning a gas station and argues a lot with his beautiful but shrewish wife, Pauline who married him when he was poised to become the champ. Unbeknownst to him, she has plans to move on. She's tied up in a jewel theft and with the handsome thief, Victor Rollins. When Payne goes to pick her up at the florist shop he sees her in the arms of Rollins. After a series of dizzying plot twists, Payne finds himself hunted by the police for Pauline's murder and in turn playing the hunter. He has to find Rollins so he can clear himself before Rollins leaves the country or his cohorts in crime gun him down. Keyes' plays the struggling actress eager to help him and fearful for his precarious situation. When she points out the danger he's in he replies, "It's dangerous to cross the street. Or to park your cab in front of a florist shop." Words to live by.