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The Dark 50s: Noir films at the Castro

by Tavo Amador

The Dark 50s: Noir films at the Castro

The "Fabulous Fifties" weren't great, except perhaps for right-wing straight WASP men. Independent women, out LGBTs, racial, ethnic, religious minorities didn't thrive. "Red Scare" congressional witch-hunts alleging communist infiltration of American institutions dominated the decade's politics. Homophobia and fear of the "other" were rampant. Mere innuendo ruined lives. Many actors were blacklisted. The last flowering of Hollywood's film noir genre reflected the era's anxiety. Eddie Muller's 2019 Noir City film festival includes pictures that show how national paranoia damaged society. It runs at the Castro Theatre Jan. 25-Feb. 3.

Counterfeiter Tris Stewart (Lloyd Bridges, father of Jeff and Beau) is "Trapped" (1949) despite being released from jail to help the Feds find the source of fake $20 bills printed from his old plates. But Tris plans to steal enough money to flee to Mexico with his blonde squeeze (Barbara Payton). It's not that simple. No one's trustworthy. Betrayals are frequent and fast. Directed by Richard Fleischer, from a sharp screenplay by Earl Felton and George Zuckerman. Assistant DA Cleve Marshall (glassy-eyed Wendell Corey), unhappily married and drinking heavily, looks at "The File on Thelma Jordan" (1950) and is dazzled by Barbara Stanwyck. Besotted, he misses her nefarious plans for a wealthy aunt. She's also hot for dangerous Tony Laredo (Richard Rober). Nothing good will come of this. Superbly directed by Robert Siodmark, from a screenplay by Ketti Frings based on a story by Mary Holland. (1/ 25)

A racially mixed town poisons "The Well" (1951) when a black girl disappears. A white transient with no alibi is arrested. Violent confrontations ensue. This prescient look at racism received Oscar nominations for Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene's story and screenplay, and for Chester Schaeffer's editing. Shot in Marysville and Yuba City, CA. With Maidie Norman. Directed by Leo Popkin and Rouse. William Wyler's "Detective Story" (1951) takes place in a police station. Kirk Douglas (father of Michael) is an intense, moralistic cop. His angry paranoia is hurting his marriage to beautiful Eleanor Parker. With Lee Grant in her auspicious screen debut as a kleptomaniac, William Bendix and George Macready. Oscar nominations for Wyler, Parker, and Grant, who would be blacklisted and barred from movies until 1955. Screenplay by Philip Yordan and Robert Wyler, based on Sidney Kingsley's play. (Matinee, 1/26)

Special Prosecutor Edmond O'Brien reaches "A Turning Point" (1951) when he investigates hometown corruption. His cop father (Ed Begley) is reluctant to get involved. Cynical reporter William Holden knows why. Gorgeous Alexis Smith is torn between O'Brien and the handsome Holden. The cracker-jack finale answers the hard questions. Crisp direction by William Dieterele. Warren Duff adapted Horace McCoy's story. Lovely, rich Jean Simmons' "Angel Face" (1953) is deceptive, as Robert Mitchum learns. She has an Electra-like complex. Herbert Marshall is Daddy, and Barbara O'Neil her unlucky stepmother. Otto Preminger directed this deliciously over-the-top melodrama. Screenplay by Frank Nugent, Oscar Millard and an uncredited Ben Hecht, from Chester Erskine's story. (1/26)

Samuel Fuller's "Pickup on South Street" (1953) turns the cold war hot. On a packed Manhattan subway car, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) picks the purse of sexy Candy (Jean Peters), inadvertently stealing a microfilm belonging to her ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley), a secret communist agent. Police informant Moe Williams (the great Thelma Ritter) tells Candy what happened. Candy's plans to recover it go awry when she falls for Skip. The weary Moe pays the ultimate price for getting involved. Screenplay by Fuller from a story by Dwight Taylor. Ritter got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Chicago is "The City That Never Sleeps" (1953), and cop Johnny Kelly (Gig Young) has had it with his job and his marriage to Paula Raymond. California and beautiful Mala Powers beckon. Then Edward Arnold makes him an offer he wants to refuse. Will he? With William Talman, Marie Windsor, and Chill Wills. John Auer directed from a screenplay by Steve Fischer. (1/27)

Will gorgeous moll Kim Novak make a "Pushover" (1954) of cop Fred MacMurray? She wants him to keep the loot he's supposed to recover. Will he do the right thing? With Dorothy Malone and E.G. Marshall. Roy Huggins wrote the tense script, adapted from novels by Bill Ballinger and Thomas Walsh. Directed by Richard Quine. Chanteuse Ida Lupino faces a "Private Hell" (1954) when she helps the cops recover some stolen money. She falls for one of them (Steve Cochran). Lupino and ex-husband Collier Young wrote the screenplay. With Howard Duff, Lupino's then-husband. Don Siegel directed. (1/28)

Ralph Meeker is P.I. Mike Hammer in "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955). He rescues a woman on the run who's then killed in a car "accident." Tough guy Hammer is released from the hospital and wants to investigate her death — but the cops prevent it. As if they could. Screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides, from Mickey Spillane's novel. Robert Aldrich directed. "Killer's Kiss" (1955) is Stanley Kubrick's second film, a Manhattan noir set in the world of boxing and crime. With Frank Silvera. Kubrick and Harold O. Sackler wrote the screenplay. (1/29)

"The Scarlet Hour" (1956) is when real-life gay actor Tom Tryon and Carol Ohmart plan a jewelry heist that will free her from her nasty husband (James Gregory). With Elaine Stritch in her first film. Directed by Oscar winner Michael Curtiz ("Casablanca," "Mildred Pierce") from a screenplay by Alfred Von Ronkel, Frank Tashlin, and John Meredyth Lucas. Gorgeous, social-climbing Robert Wagner gives heiress Virginia Leith "A Kiss Before Dying" (1956) when their plans to marry are dashed by her pregnancy, which will get her disinherited. So he successfully stages her suicide, which arouses her sister's (Joanne Woodward) suspicions. Will she fall for his kiss? With hunky Jeffrey Hunter and Mary Astor. Directed by Gerd Oswald. Screenplay by Lawrence Roman from Ira Levin's novel. (1/30)

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