Monday, February 14, 2011

For the Love of Film (Noir): Renoir, Ryan and a splash of vodka...

This review was part of the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon to benefit the Film Noir Foundation.
San Francisco's annual film noir festival, Noir City 9, ran for ten days at the end of January. From all reports the festival, an event that showcased 24 films, was a great success. I would say, from my own experience, it was a smash.
Elisha Cook, Jr. in Stranger on the Third Floor
My first blog on the festival covered opening night, a double bill featuring High Wall (1947) and Stranger on the Third Floor (1940). The evening included a torchy performance by songstress Laura Ellis, special guest Judy Wyler Sheldon, daughter of director William Wyler and actress Margaret Tallichet (one of the stars of Stranger on the Third Floor) and a riveting Serena Bramble montage of films noir/neo-noir/crime set in San Franciscco. Hosting the festival was Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller, "czar of noir," the perfect emcee for a serious noirfest.
On January 26th I trekked to San Francisco's glorious Castro Theatre once more, this time for a screening of French director Jean Renoir's fabled (and final) Hollywood effort, The Woman on the Beach (1947) starring Robert Ryan, Joan Bennett and Charles Bickford. While the festival's theme was "Who's Crazy Now?" and each film reflected lunacy of some kind, this night's double feature also honored Robert Ryan. In his introduction, Eddie Muller talked about the vicious, venal roles that were Ryan's trademark. Muller contrasted Ryan's filmography of villainous character with the man's generous and humane off-screen values. The enthusiastic packed house cheered when Muller announced that Robert Ryan's daughter Lisa was in the audience.
In introducing The Woman on the Beach, Muller disputed the conventional wisdom that RKO mangled Renoir's film following a disastrous preview. Muller, who knows his noir intimately, told a different story. It was true, he said, that a negative preview did occur, but it was Renoir not RKO who aggressively edited the film afterward. Apparently Renoir was rattled by the audience reaction and lost confidence in his ability to connect with American movie-goers...then he began to cut...and cut.
Charles Bickford in The Woman on the Beach
The Woman on the Beach is, as one might expect, a visually arresting film. Crashing waves, vast sand dunes, ruins of a wrecked ship on a desolate beach, rocky cliffs...fog, wind, rain. The plot concerns a Coast Guard officer (Ryan) who has survived a torpedo disaster at sea and suffers nightmares and mood swings in the aftermath. He encounters a dark beauty (Bennett) gathering firewood on a misty shore and is drawn into a harrowing triangle. Charles Bickford plays the woman's husband, a celebrated artist, now blind, withdrawn from the world and bitter.
Evidence of heavy editing is hard to miss; there is often little flow from scene to scene. And though the film is beautifully photographed and atmospheric, the script is much less inspired. Ryan and Bickford are interesting, but Bennett is inconsistent and lacks allure as the femme fatale. It is a flawed film, but it has its moments and is well worth seeing.
I planned to leave right after the first film, it was a work night after all, but when Muller announced that Rain Organics Vodka would be serving complimentary shots at intermission, I decided to linger a bit. Luckily I was early in the drink line and had enough time, as I let my ice melt, to peruse merchandise for sale on the mezzanine. Eddie Muller's book, Dark City, was on display and one day soon it will be mine. I referred to a borrowed copy when reviewing Warner Home Video's last film noir collection. The book is full of fascinating information and stylishly the noir tradition.
This was my first Noir City, it won't be my last.
Click here to learn more about the Film Noir Foundation.


  1. Sounds like the festival was a smash hit. Wish I could have been there. Haven't seen the Renoir film but it seems to have an interesting history. Will have to keep an eye out for it.

  2. I an a huge fan of RENOIR, but I do not think he had a clue what AMERICAN audiences or studios wanted...outside THE SOUTHERNER & THE RIVER, most of his non-french films were duds!! have you seen LA CHIENNE (THE BITCH)??? yes...that is the correct translation!!!

  3. Lady Eve,
    Thanks so much for taking us on the journey with you. With your stellar writing and descriptions I've felt like I was there right along with you.

    Admittedly, a couple of the films you featured were ones I haven't heard of but have since been added to my "must see" list (which is getting quite long) I need a vacation just to spend watching old films, sadly other things keep getting in the way.


  4. San Francisco isn't the only town to host a "Noir City" festival...Seattle's is just about to close (Feb. 11 - 17)...L.A.'s Festival of Film Noir (co-sponsored by the Film Noir Foundation) is coming up at the end of March...there are also events in Chicago and D.C. and possibly other cities as well - check your local listings!!

  5. Good one, as usual, Eve! I can't believe I have never seen Woman on the Beach! I love Robert Ryan and consider him one of the best American actors. I'm going to have to rememdy that omission! The festival sounds fantastic!