Dorothy B. Hughes was one of the great crime fiction writers; with an eclectic career that allowed her the time to pen some of the strongest material for film noir adaptations while also writing serious film criticism. I knew little to nothing about this important writer until good ol’ Eddie Muller, the self-named Czar of Noir and President of the Film Noir Foundation, shed light on her career on Thursday Night, April 16th at Noir City’s 17th Annual Film Noir Festival at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre. This evening the festival honored writer Hughes with two films adapted from her novels, Ride the Pink Horse and The Fallen Sparrow.
Eddie is always enjoyable and fascinating to listen to, as he has such a passion and excitement for the films he presents and curates. I had seen Ride the Pink Horse before (one of my all time favorite noirs) but thanks to Eddie’s description and fun facts, I was salivating by the time the houselights dimmed.
As perfectly described by Eddie, Ride the Pink Horse plays as much like a Samurai movie as film noir. Expertly directed and starring Robert Montgomery (this is by far his best film), the actor plays Gagin, a World War II veteran who arrives in the rural New Mexico town of San Pablo to pay a debt…of murder. Always on edge, scanning every location like a caged animal, Gagin has the world-weary, bitter energy that is part and parcel with existential noir protagonists, but this guy really makes you believe he has seen some atrocities in his time. He makes no secret that he is in town (coincidentally during a big “fiesta”) to find and blackmail a mobster named Frank Hugo (a slimy, near deaf Fred Clark) for the murder of his best friend Shorty. It seems Shorty had evidence, a check, that proves Hugo was paying off the wrong people. Gagin’s no nonsense approach to every situation makes him the perfect Toshiro Mifune or Lee Marvin-style hardboiled tough guy. The moment we see Gagin in action, we know he has our back.
Soon it seems everyone wants a piece of Hugo, including G-man Bill Retz (Art Smith) a seemingly benign older gentleman, who later proves to be as tough as the best of them. As Gagin hides out awaiting the other shoe to drop, he makes friends with carousel operator Pancho (Thomas Gomez in an Oscar nominated performance) and a strange, and strangely beautiful Mexican girl named Pila (Wandra Hendrix) who may or may not be “death.” Like Yojimbo, Gagin is attacked and beaten (in a very well directed and shot piece of action sequencing) and left for dead. Here, actor Montgomery delivers a powerfully convincing portrayal of a dying man – we see the life (and sanity) slowly leak from him like so much blood. In his weakened state, confronting Hugo and his cadre of gunsels presents one of the more tense and believable scenes in all of Noirdom.
Ride the Pink Horse’s 35mm print was excellent, donated by Universal Pictures. Muller explained that the last time the film was shown, they had used a 16mm in need of help, and so having it in this format was a dream.
The second half of the evening was an even greater treat, as actress Patricia Morison, celebrating her 100th birthday, was in attendance and regaled the audience in great stories from her time in Hollywood. Morison has a smaller role in the second feature, The Fallen Sparrow, but that didn’t stop the audience from giving her a standing ovation upon her arrival. She explained that while her métier was musicals and she was a singer, her first contract was with Paramount, who weren’t making musicals at the time, and so she ended up not given the opportunities she deserved. She was invited to Cole Porter’s house where she gave a general audition. When Porter heard her voice, he gave her the music sheets for his newest venture called Kiss Me, Kate which he was having a hard time getting backing. He was extremely impressed with Morison, and she ended up originating the lead role on Broadway. She also came in as the second lead for The King and I, giving a hilarious tale of auditioning for Yul Brynner in his dressing room while he sat naked in front of her. It would seem that Morison was constantly at the “receiving end” of unwanted advances. She stated that Louis B. Mayer was so taken with her that he sent an assistant to propose marriage, but she was not interested. Eddie Muller joked that he should set Patricia Morison up with Norman Lloyd, two Hollywood legends and Octogenarians who are currently “single.”
The print for The Fallen Sparrow was not in the same good condition as RTPH, but it didn’t stop the audience from enjoying this paranoid tale of an American Spanish Civil War vet, returned to the US after a harrowing two years in a POW camp, where he was spiritually and emotionally broken down by the interfering Nazis. The cast includes such screen-candy as John Garfield, Maureen O’Hara and Walter Slezak. (Guess who plays the Nazi?) This one is a somewhat convoluted tale of Nazi sympathizers in New York who have somehow bumped off Kit McKittrick’s (Garfield) best friend who helped get him out of prison. Kit’s in town after a rehabilitation at “the farm’ (read: asylum) to find out who killed his buddy Louie. (Author Hughes seemed obsessed with men investigating/avenging the deaths of their buddies.) Old girlfriends, relatives and neighbors all seem to have something to do with Louie’s death, so much so that by the end it’s hard to figure out just how many Nazis are calling New York home. Still, there are some great moments, especially when Garfield is given truth serum and must match wits (and firearms) with the “man with the dragging foot.” As with almost all great classic films, The Fallen Sparrow flies along at a brisk clip, so that the most contrived plot points are immediately forgotten, leaving the audience with pure popcorn entertainment.
Noir City has really outdone themselves this year with some amazing film choices and guest speakers, and as the festival and attendees grow, it has become one of the best, (and most important) film festivals in LA (and San Francisco). Make sure not to miss it next year.