Around the world in 15 noirs
by Erin Blackwell
San Franciscans are spoiled when it comes to film noir festivals. In January, we swilled showman Eddie Muller's free booze during his wildly popular Noir City at the Wurlitzerized Castro Theatre in the city's gay heart. Now we'll be guzzling from hip flasks at Elliot Lavine's putatively sober, scrappy, seedy foray into psycho-melodrama at the venerable Roxie Theatre, a neighborhood hold-out flanking the dread Valencia corridor. Attention, wannabe screenwriters, the death of the Mission is the perfect setting for a neo-Noir. Meanwhile, Lavine in tandem with Noir City refugee Don Malcolm presents seven programs of subtitled second-wave (1956-74) noirs, starting tonight, March 19, at 7 p.m. (through March 23).
Retour de Manivelle (1957), directed by Denys de la Patelliere, tonight at 9 p.m., is a great place to start. On the glamorous French Riviera, high-class blonde beauty Michelle Morgan seduces dark-pompadoured everyman Daniel Gelin, who's been hired as her tall, blond, alcoholic husband Peter van Eyck's chauffeur. Something's very wrong with this couple. The hired man watches their silhouettes enact a nightly ritual of "Don't touch me, have another drink, now pass out and leave me alone." Is it his fault she's frigid? Is it her fault he's drunk? Is it their fault they're gorgeous creatures trapped inside a beautiful villa on the Mediterranean Sea, speaking the world's sleekest language? Well, when you can't pay your bills, the bourgeois ideals of real estate and social status, of which marriage is merely the most debased iteration, can kill you.
Fortunately, the husband's paid up on his life insurance policy with Lloyd's of London. Where there's a will, there's a way out. Which is exactly what La Morgan has in mind. She is, after all, a femme fatale, or woman-as-death, the stock feature of all noirs worthy of the name, starting with Bette Davis in The Letter (1940). That's a year before Classic Noir is said to have begun, a year before the U.S. entry into World War II launched a geopolitical guilt complex craving expression onscreen. Davis plays a cold-blooded hypocrite whose crime of passion reveals the drawbacks to the colonial marriage business under British rule in Malaysia. The more beautiful Morgan, both more logical and more greedy, delivers trenchant lines in a disabused deadpan that explodes into real emotion when she denounces the system that monetizes female beauty.
Noir is the perfect vehicle for systemic critique, and there's no more infectious paean to anarchy than one of two Greek films on the menu, Nikos Koundouros' O Drakos, or The Ogre of Athens (1956) (3/22, 4 p.m.). I think I missed the whole point of this movie, watching it on DVD on my laptop. What I see in films isn't always what I read in other people's summaries. Oh, well. Even if you misread the intrigue, you'll see the dancing. This dancing is so tragic, so life-affirming, so muscular, true, emotional, therapeutic, you'll wish there were a club on Valencia Street you could run out and authentically grapevine in. But you can't.
The Greek people! The greatest, the founding culture of the Western world, currently battling the Teutons for control of their own economy, are here represented in a quirky, inventive, epic hunt for a modern Robin Hood financial genius who might or might not be the film's protagonist. A meek bank clerk, like a James Joyce alter ego or a Kafka stand-in, in horn-rims and balding, finds notoriety and love as the mastermind of a heist of Ancient Greek ruins. Instead of being cutesy, the set-up is both Existential and radically political. That is, after all, the Greek genius: to recognize that existence is political. On a double bill with The Rehearsal (1974), directed by Jules Dassin, at which actor Stathis Giallelis makes a personal appearance (1:30 p.m.).