Leave it to Elliot Lavine to emphasize the 99 44/100% aspect of his latest tour down cinema’s darkest, loneliest and most dangerous streets when he opens “I Wake Up Dreaming 2013: 99 44/100% Noir” – running May 10 through May 23 at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater – with Blues in the Night, a 1941 musical.
Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s title tune that cautions against getting involved with a “sweet talkin’” woman pretty much sums up what happens to pianist Jigger Pine (Richard Whorf) when he meets sultry chanteuse Kay Grant (Betty Field) at a New Jersey roadhouse appropriately enough called The Jungle. Before riding the rails into Jersey, Jigger and his band – a quintet that includes the aptly named singer Character (Priscilla Lane), drummer Peppi (Billy Halop), trumpet player (and Character’s husband) Leo (Jack Carson) and clarinetist Nickie (future directing great and HUAC snitch Elia Kazan) – are footloose but poor. The Jungle signals a welcome change in fortunes, but then two things happen: Kay gets her hooks into Jigger and their boss, Del Davis (Lloyd Nolan), shows his true, ugly self.
Blues in the Night is no “Guys and Dolls.” There are some laughs and the tone at times, especially, at the start is deceptively light, but Jigger is on a treacherous path and the gambling den Del presides over is fraught with violence and danger. “Noir musical” might seem like an oxymoron, but direction by Anatole Litvak (“Sorry, Wrong Number,” “The Snake Pit”), a tight script by Robert Rossen (“Johnny O’Clock,” “All the King’s Men” and another who would later name names before HUAC), a fabulous Arlen and Mercer soundtrack (five songs total with the title tune, a recurring theme) and a crackerjack ensemble combine for a tense rhythmic journey to the murky side of life.
Much more murder and mayhem unfold, of course, over the course of the two-week festival. Among the other highlights:
I Wake Up Screaming (1941) – Sharing the bill with Blues in the Night” is this nifty little thriller starring Victor Mature as a man accused of murdering a model (Carole Landis). Her sister (Betty Grable) starts to believe his innocence, but the detective in charge of the case (creepy Laird Cregar, reason enough to see the movie) has already made up his mind to do everything in his power to send Mature to the death chamber. Edgy and atmospheric, the film costars Elisha Cook Jr., Alan Mowbray and Allyn Joslyn.
Johnny O’Clock (1947) – This genuine rarity stars Dick Powell (Murder My Sweet‘s Philip Marlowe) as the title character, a gambler who co-owns a casino with the shady Guido Marchettis (Thomas Gomez). When crooked cop Chuck Blayden (Jim Bannon) tries to horn in on the casino action and Blayden’s girl Harriet Hobson (Nina Foch) turns up dead not long after, dogged homicide cop Inspector Koch (Lee J. Cobb) is convinced that Johnny is the doer. If that wasn’t enough grief, Johnny also has business troubles with his partner and two women – Marchettis’ heedless wife Nelle (Ellen Drew) and the dead girl’s sister Nancy (Evelyn Keyes) – competing for his attention. Robert Rossen wrote the screenplay and made his directing debut with this thriller that traps Johnny in a nasty little web of intrigue.
The Monster and the Girl (1941) – Weird and wonderful, this hybrid blend of crime drama and horror, stars Ellen Drew as a country girl whose move to the big city comes to disaster when she is forced into prostitution. It only gets worse when her brother (Phillip Terry) is framed for murder by her gangster pimps and executed. So far, so noir – but then a gorilla nursing a grudge declares war on the mob.
Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) – Edward G. Robinson stars as a carny fortuneteller who gradually realizes that he has an actual gift for foreseeing the future – and that is not necessarily a good thing. After retreating from society for decades, his visions lead him back to Los Angeles first to a Bunker Hill flophouse and then to a mansion where he tries to convince a police detective (William Demarest) that his prophecies are real and that his late best friend’s heiress daughter (Gail Russell) is in mortal danger.
Black Angel (1946) – Dan Duryea is terrific as an alcoholic musician who has no memory of the night his stone-hearted wife was murdered, apparently by a man (John Phillips) she was blackmailing. Duryea offers to help the wife (June Vincent) of the condemned man clear his name, only to be plunged into a nightmare that his blackout has kept hidden.
All Through the Night (1941) – Humphrey Bogart is Gloves Donahue, a New York gambler on the hunt for cheesecake who stumbles on a Nazi conspiracy instead in this breezy, action-packed comic noir. Deprived of dessert, the Damon Runyon-esque man about Manhattan instead rallies his buddies to take on the spies. Conrad Veidt and Peter Lorre are two of the Nazis, while Bogie’s pals include William Demarest, Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers.
Sweet Smell of Success (1957) – Alexander Mackendrick’s evocative portrait of black-hearted Walter Winchell-like New York columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and his “cookie full of arsenic” publicist toady Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is one of cinema’s great achievements, the perfect blend of cast, director, screenplay (by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman), cinematography (James Wong Howe), score (Elmer Bernstein) and the drama’s uncredited star – Manhattan in the 1950s.
Autumn Leaves (1956) – A year after the one-two punch in the gut of “Kiss Me Deadly” and “The Big Knife,” director Robert Aldrich returned with this romantic melodrama full of noirish foreboding as Joan Crawford plays a middle-aged spinster typist swept off her feet by the charming, younger Cliff Robertson. It isn’t tell after the couple has said their “I dos” that she begins to suspect that there is something off about her new husband, a revelation that could endanger more than just her new marriage. Nat King Cole sings the title song, providing an elegant counterpoint to some nasty bits of business.
My Gun Is Quick (1957) – Little-known Robert Bray steps into Mike Hammer’s gumshoes in this obscure Mickey Spillane adaptation. After a woman he briefly encounters in a diner turns up dead, Hammer is on the hunt for her killer in this low-budget, but thrilling and moody noir that gets a lot of mileage out of its Los Angeles’ locations.
Criss Cross (1949) – Lavine brings the 2013 edition of “I Wake Up Screaming” to a close with one of noirdom’s all-time greats. “The Killers” (1946) team of director Robert Siodmak and star Burt Lancaster reunite for this taut, complex drama that casts Lancaster as an armored car driver who will go to any length to win back his former wife (Yvonne DeCarlo) – even going so far as to plot an armored car heist with her new husband (Dan Duryea). What could possibly go wrong?
*For more information about “I Wake Up Dreaming 2013: 99 44/100% Noir” or to buy tickets, visit roxie.com.