Friday, September 03, 2010

Going Dark at the Center

Even though you wouldn’t know it from 20th Century Fox’s more recent track record, dozens of classic films noir came out of that Hollywood studio, including some of my all-time favorites, among them Leave Her to Heaven, Laura, and my pick as the best film noir of all time, Night and the City (1950). Night and the City, the last American movie from director Jules Dassin, stars Richard Widmark in a role that couldn’t be further from his breakout performance in Kiss of Death.

Kiss of Death is one of the three classic noirs playing at New York City’s Lincoln Center this weekend as part of an event called “Fasten Your Seatbelts: 75 Years of Fox.” That 1947 film from director Henry Hathaway will play alongside Hangover Square (1945) and Nightmare Alley (1947) on Saturday, September 4. If you’re in the city this weekend, you can’t miss such an opportunity to see these films on the big screen.

Kiss of Death is probably the most famous film of the three, with Richard Widmark’s Tommy Udo playing a big part in that. It’s fair to say that Udo is one of the great villains, who’s as frightening as he is influential. When I saw first saw the film, Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight was very fresh in my mind. It wasn’t hard to see the line from Widmark to Ledger. If it seems as if Udo is the only part of Kiss of Death I like, well, that’s not too far off base. The picture co-stars Victor Mature, who I’ve always found to be forgettable, the standard crime/noir plot veers a little too often into sentimentality, and the cinematography--so important in films like these--doesn’t really stand out. But Widmark, man, he’s so good. If you enjoy him in Kiss of Death, I recommend a chaser of 1948’s Road House (no, not the Swayze movie), in which he plays a less sadistic but no less frightening variation on Tommy Udo opposite Ida Lupino.

Hangover Square, which I know I’ve seen but can’t remember much about aside from Laird Crager’s performance as an emotionally tortured composer, is the Saturday film I’m most looking forward to seeing, for that exact reason: I don’t remember much about it, save for Crager’s involvement. I found Crager to be masterful at the slow burn in 1941’s I Wake Up Screaming (which also stars my new nemesis, Victor Mature), and, if the synopsis on the Lincoln Center’s Web site is to be believed, this was a major influence on Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. So, like Owen Wilson asking about information on asteroids, that’s really all you need to say: “major influence on Sweeney Todd.”

Of the three films playing on Saturday, Nightmare Alley (based on William Lindsay Gresham’s novel of the same name) is by far my current favorite. It takes many of the familiar noir themes and puts them in a unique setting, a traveling carnival. Tyrone Power plays a con artist working said carnival whose lust and greed lead him to bigger and grander schemes. While Nightmare Alley has wonderful cinematography and fun characters, the subversive themes hidden just underneath its noir plot are what I love most. The film eventually becomes a critique of religion and culture, which makes it both relevant for modern fans of The Secret, and appears even more daring when you consider that the film was released just two years after the end of World War II.

These aren’t the only movies that are part of Lincoln Center’s Fox celebration this weekend. A restored print of All About Eve is on the schedule, as are Alien, M*A*S*H, The Ox-Bow Incident, Vanishing Point, and Fight Club. All of those films are worth your time, but they’re also the classics that you may have seen time and time again. I recommend that you make a point of watching any of the three films noir playing on Saturday. It’s my contention that the best way to take in movies is on the big screen in a theater filled with strangers, and therefore I’ll forgive you if you choose to see some of the other selections instead. But really, if you’ve got an extra dollar to spare, give Kiss of Death a shot.

It’ll make Tommy Udo happy!

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