Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Exploring the Dark Side of the American Dream on Film

Richard Barthelmess in William Wellman's Heroes for Sale (1933)

As America continues its steep and steady descent into another dark night of the soul, distressed citizens cope as best they can. Some rant and debate on social media, some organize or take to the streets, others seek solace in their diversion or hobby of choice. For the film buff, watching movies can provide relief but also, on occasion, a sobering history lesson.

Next month, in a timely move, San Francisco’s Roxie Theatre will host a four-day film series, The Dark Side of the Dream, screening twelve films produced in the US between 1933 and 1964 that recall earlier dark moments out of the country’s past. These films remind us, if we need reminding, that the dark side of the American Dream is nothing new and that one of the primary reasons it is wise to know history is to learn from it and avoid repeating its mistakes.

The Dark Side of the Dream, which runs from March 23 – 26, is a co-production of Elliot Lavine of I Wake Up Dreaming, producer of many Bay Area film noir and other film series over the past 25 years, and Don Malcolm’s Midcentury Productions, the company responsible for annual international and French film noir festivals in San Francisco. Together they have put together a program of “subversive cinema for subversive times.” A recent preview screening presented three films exploring different aspects of the dream and its downside:  

Black Legion (1937)
Warner Bros.’ Black Legion (1937) features Humphrey Bogart in a pre-stardom turn for Archie Mayo (Bordertown, The Petrified Forest) as a working man who, embittered when he loses a promotion to a foreign-born co-worker, joins a secret anti-immigrant group. The story was based on a 1935 kidnapping and murder case in Detroit.
M (1951), directed by Joseph Losey (The Boy with Green Hair, The Servant) is an Americanized remake of the 1931 Fritz Lang/Peter Lorre classic about the capture of a serial killer and mob justice. Director Losey was a target of HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee) and blacklisted in the early ‘50s. He left the US in 1953 and settled in London, never to work in Hollywood or live in the US again. Several of those involved in making this version of M were HUAC targets.

Heroes for Sale (1933), directed by William Wellman (A Star is Born, The Ox-Bow Incident, The High and the Mighty) for Warner Bros., is a Depression-era social justice epic. Richard Barthelmess, Loretta Young and Aline McMahon star. An overflowing plot follows Barthelmess from fighting in the trenches of World War I through just about every indignity to which a returning veteran could be subjected. His battlefield heroism is appropriated by a well-to-do but cowardly fellow soldier, his war-injury-induced morphine addiction meets with zero compassion when he returns home, his business success is destroyed by corporate greed, and his wife is killed in a mob riot he is trying to stop. Finally, having finished a prison term he didn’t deserve and now suspected of being a Communist simply because he has a social conscience, he is driven out of town and on the bum at the height of the Great Depression.

The current political climate inspired this series, and Lavine notes that, “Even as America is dealing with the very same issues today, it’s amazing to see how great filmmakers brought all of this to our attention in earlier times.” He adds, “This series is really the first time I’ve been able to cover so much of that territory.” The Dark Side of the Dream will spotlight twelve hard-hitting films in six double bills over four days. Among the highlights are Robert Rossen's Body and Soul (1947) starring John Garfield, blacklisted in Hollywood not long before suffering a fatal heart attack at age 39, and Elia Kazan's prophetic A Face in the Crowd (1957), with its riveting tour-de-force lead performance by Andy Griffith.

Click here for complete program and ticket information.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Another Noir Year Begins

San Francisco's Noir City is the first of several film noir festivals scheduled around the U.S. for 2018

The Film Noir Foundation's 16th annual Noir City festival in San Francisco ran from January 26 through February 4, kicking off a series of nationwide noir festivals, as it traditionally does, for the year.

Inside the Castro Theater, San Francisco
I planned to attend two nights but, because the final Saturday night sold out, I've only been able to get in one night of deepest, darkest noir so far this year. Wednesday night, January 31, opened with Michael Curtiz's The Unsuspected (1947), introduced by Alan K. Rode, author of the new bio, Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film. The Oscar-winning Curtiz, director of scores of classics, launched the career of Errol Flynn in the '30s with films like Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). He won a supremely well-deserved Academy Award for Casablanca (1942) and was nominated for Yankee Doodle Dandy in the same year. Oddly, though it brought Oscars to others and was even nominated for best picture, Curtiz's noir masterpiece, Mildred Pierce (1945), did not bring a nod to its director.