THE ANNUAL Noir City Festival in San Francisco reminds us how many gems of the Hollywood system remain, frustratingly, unavailable on DVD. Luckily, the dedicated members of the Film Noir Foundation keep finding, restoring and returning to the big screen features that otherwise might slide into undeserved obscurity. This year’s 10-day (Jan. 21–30) nervous walk down some dark, rain-soaked back alleys of crime, despair and even psychopathology encompasses two dozen films at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.
The High Wall (1947; Jan. 21, 7:30pm) Three enduring noir tropes surface in Curtis Bernhardt’s High Wall: the lingering scars of combat on the psyches of WWII vets; women who love too much; and a late-’40s Hollywood fascination with psychiatry. Robert Taylor plays a pilot suffering from blackouts, including one during which he seems to have killed his wife (the same motif shows up in another festival offering, Beware My Lovely). In the mental hospital, he attracts the attention of psychiatrist Audrey Totter, who not only decides to prove Taylor’s innocence but even brings his young son into her house, obliterating any doctor/patient boundaries. Her investigations lead to an unlikely suspect, the dead woman’s boss (Herbert Marshall, who doesn’t come across as a dangerous philanderer). The ending, including some forced truth-serum injections, is a bit far-fetched, but Bernhardt manages to maintain an air of suspense and doubt.
They Won’t Believe Me (1947; Jan. 22, 7:30pm): An unlikely Robert Young (Father Knows Best) stars as a weak-willed, greedy bounder who marries for money, cheats for sex and finally faces murder charges for both. The intricate plot has Young dumping one girlfriend, moving across country, embezzling from his clinging wife, running off to Tahoe with another floozy (his saucy, party-girl secretary, played by a live-wire Susan Hayward), escaping a flaming car crash and then partying through the Caribbean trying to forget. The ending comes with a cool twist, but the real fun is seeing Young bantering with the equally amoral Hayward over a giant snifter full of martinis.
The Dark Mirror (1946; Jan. 25, 7:30pm): Olivia de Havilland plays identical twins—one meek, one malevolent. When a prominent doctor is murdered, one of them must be guilty but no jury will convict because who can tell them apart? Not somewhat hapless psychiatrist Lew Ayres, who is pretty sure he’s falling in love with the good twin, nor dogged police detective Thomas Mitchell, who can’t stand the thought that the sisters might beat the system. De Havilland does a superb job subtly both differentiating and melding her two characters. Directed with visual flair by Robert Siodmak. The same identical-twins gimmick also turns up in Among the Living (1941; Jan. 23, 3 and 6:15pm) to lesser effect. Albert Dekker plays the two scions of a Southern family: one has led a normal life; the other has been locked in the basement of the family mansion. When the bad twin escapes, a murder rampage follows. Susan Hayward shows up again as the town chippy, and doomed Frances Farmer herself has a small part, but the film is more Universal Horror crossed with bargain-basement Faulkner than it is noir.
Beware My Lovely (1952; 9pm): Ida Lupino plays a World War I widow who innocently takes in a boarder (Robert Ryan) who turns out to be plagued by blackouts during which he commits murders that he can’t remember. Lupino spends the movie locked in her Victorian house, menaced not just by Ryan but even by the oppressive latticework over the halls and doorways that symbolizes the prison her domestic refuge has become. Double billed with another Ryan feature, the very moody Woman on the Beach (1947; 7:30pm), in which he plays a troubled Navy lieutenant who encounters a strange woman (Joan Bennett) and her older, domineering husband, a blind artist (Charles Bickford). Not exactly a noir proper, but a significant (if disastrously recut by the studio) example of French director Jean Renoir’s brief period of exile in Hollywood.