Sunday, January 25, 2009

Noir City, Night Two: What a Dahl!


The loyal denizens of Noir City were treated to a visit by Hollywood Royalty last night. The Film Noir Foundation and a sold-out theater of 1,407 lucky film-goers paid tribute to the legendary Arlene Dahl, va-va-va voom girl and wonderful actress. What a night ... and what a Dahl!

The evening began with an ode to nostalgia: this year, as part of the Newspaper Noir theme, newspaper boys--and girls--dressed in the archetypal hat and knickers of legend, roam the waiting lines of the festival, hawking free Noir City programs to eager ticket holders. Last night they yelled "Extra, Extra--Arlene Dahl in person between shows!" It's a great gimmick, and the kids were wonderful ... and I'm betting it helped sell a few more Chronicles and New York Times, too.

Ms. Dahl arrived to applause from the hundreds of people waiting in line, accompanied by her husband, Marc Rosen, and actor son, the gallant and handsome Lorenzo Lamas. A bit later, passport holders were allowed into the theater for a fabulous reception, complete with cocktails made with the official Noir City spirits Rain Vodka and Eagle Rare Bourbon (my poison was bourbon and soda, natch), and a sumptuous feast of hors d'oeuvres. Ms. Dahl, as gorgeous as ever, graciously signed autographs and posed for pictures, while her family watched proudly.

Then ... the movie. WICKED AS THEY COME (1956) was a star vehicle for Ms. Dahl, showcasing not just her amazing beauty, but her formidable talent. She portrays an impoverished, working-class girl who scrambles over a chain of men into a rich marriage ... only to have her past catch up to her with disastrous results. What do you expect? This is Noir City, baby!

The film is reminiscent of the pre-code Stanwyck masterpiece Baby Face, but offers an interesting twist (and one that indicates how obsessive filmmakers were with psychology and juvenile delinquency in the mid-'50s): Ms. Dahl's character, Kathy Allen, harbors an emotional block against intimacy and a pathological hatred of men not because she is as "wicked as they come", but because she was the victim of a horrendous crime in her early adolescence. Heady stuff--and Ms. Dahl's performance was perfect.

Philip Carey and Herbert Marshall ably rounded out the star list, and the film was sumptously filmed--on location in Britain--by Basil Emmott. Director Ken Hughes may be more famous for his British Double Indemnity noir, The House Across the Lake (1954) -- and for directing the only Ian Fleming musical, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) -- but WICKED AS THEY COME is a wonderful piece of filmmaking, and a shining example of Ms. Dahl's tremendous talent.

After the credits, the screen segued to a delightful series of film clips from Ms. Dahl's films, everything from song and dance numbers (Three Little Words) to melodrama (Woman's World) to historical noir (Reign of Terror--shown at last year's Noir City) to fantasy adventure (Journey to the Center of the Earth). Audience favorite was probably the steamy clip from Sangaree (1953), in which she co-starred with husband Fernando Lamas. What made it even more memorable is the fact that Lorenzo had never seen his mother on the big screen before last night.

Noir Czar Eddie Muller then brought Ms. Dahl to the stage for a champagne toast and a tremendous standing ovation. Gracious, delightful, and a mesmerizing conversationalist, Ms. Dahl discussed her origins in show business, her work, her equally legendary co-stars, and paid tribute to both the Castro's own beauty as a movie palace and to the adoring audience. The time passed too quickly ... and after another standing ovation, Ms. Dahl and her family made their way out of the theater, accompanied by the sound of applause and the hearts of 1,407 habitues of Noir City.

The second film then aired: a technicolar and Super Scope 1956 feast called SLIGHTLY SCARLET, starring Ms. Dahl and friend and fellow redhead Rhonda Fleming. If you don't think noir can be shot in color, think again. John Alton--probably the foremost master of shadow and light to grace Hollywood--made the oranges and greens and blues and purples as lurid as a black and white Bowery gutter.

The story was ostensibly based on James M. Cain's Love's Lovely Counterfeit, but the script rambled, sometimes into incoherency. The plot involved the ostensible clean-up of a crooked Bay City by "publicity man" John Payne, who is actually an underling of the mob boss his clean-up machinations overthrows. He uses his knowledge of Rhonda's relationship with the newly-elected goody-two shoes Mayor (she's his secretary--and what a secretary!) and her younger sister's klepto- and nymphomania (played to the delicious and perfect hilt by Ms. Dahl) to manipulate them into helping him with his coup.

The problem is that despite Payne's charisma and able performance, his motivation is unclear and underwhelming, and the movie doesn't flesh out Cain's plot well enough to make you sympathize with him. Ted de Corsia turns in his usual spectacular character performance as the overthrown Little Caesar, but Ms. Dahl, as Dorothy Lyons, steals the show ... and not just in her leopard print swim suit, but in a captivating, convincing performance of mental illnesss that made me wish she'd been able to play Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep.

Veteran director Allan Dwan wisely kept the camera on the eye-popping scenery--Rhonda and Ms. Dahl against a symphonic technicolor backdrop. SLIGHTLY SCARLET may have suffered from a weak script, but with star power like that, you can quote Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past ... "Baby, I don't care."

I'm a working girl, so I've got to leave the mean streets for a few days, hopefully to return on Thursday. In the meantime, keep your powder dry and watch out for redheads ... they spell terrific trouble in Noir City!


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