Noir’s naughty ladies strut their stuff
Audiences at the time thought of them simply as bad girls, but the UCLA Film & Television Archive is determined to salvage their reputations. The archive’s exceptionally interesting 12-film repertory series “Cool Drinks of Water: Columbia’s Noir Girls of the ‘40s and ‘50s” shows that making their acquaintance is a pleasure for lots of reasons.
The series, which begins Friday at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum, starts with a bang with a terrific Gloria Grahame double bill, Fritz Lang’s “Human Desire” and the lesser-known “The Glass Wall.” Over the next several weeks, double bills will focus on Lizabeth Scott, Nina Foch, Cleo Moore, Evelyn Keyes and Rochelle Hudson.
If these names are not familiar, the directors -- with the exception of Lang and possibly Joseph H. Lewis -- will likely be even less so. If you can wax rhapsodic about Max- well Shane, Leigh Jason, Earl McEvoy or Max Nosseck, you’ve been spending too much time in darkened rooms.
The auteurs of “Noir Girls” are not the directors but the Columbia Pictures studio and the noir genre itself. It was UCLA’s Andrea Alsberg who saw the connections and made use of the spectacular new 35-millimeter black-and-white prints of these films overseen by Grover Crisp, Sony’s guru of preservation and restoration.
The UCLA series is not only a chance to see rarely screened films on a big screen, it’s a glimpse into a forgotten time. These films were released between 1940 and 1956, when the studios consistently made B pictures with at least a hint of noir in them, which meant shadowy cinematography and dialogue like “she’d use her grandmother’s bones to pry open a cash register.”
One of the satisfactions of this series is to see such actors as Lee J. Cobb, Richard Crenna, William Holden and Charlton Heston before they became great big names.
It’s the women who are the focus, however, and even if the actresses featured here never got to the Bette Davis or Joan Crawford level of stardom, these films reveal them to be gifted individuals.
Gloria Grahame, who starts out the series, is perhaps its most complex actress, able to effortlessly portray complicated, tormented characters. “The Glass Wall” pairs her with Italian heartthrob Vittorio Gassman as a Holocaust survivor trying to get by in New York, and “Human Desire” gives her a meaty part.
Directed by Lang, following in the footsteps of Jean Renoir, whose “La Bete Humaine” with Jean Gabin also adapted the Zola novel, the brooding, pessimistic “Desire” delves into the complicated psychology of relationships with Grahame as a woman caught between husband Broderick Crawford and lover Glenn Ford.
The other highlight of the series is a chance to see Joseph H. Lewis’ B-movie classic “My Name Is Julia Ross,” which stars an empathetic and vulnerable Nina Foch as a desperate young woman who takes a secretarial job that is not what it seems. With its terrifying air of disturbing mystery, “Julia Ross” packs more than would seem possible into its taut 65-minute running time. Also on the bill is “The Dark Past,” with Foch as gangster William Holden’s scene-stealing girl.
The other actresses are equally distinctive, but no one had a voice like Lizabeth Scott, a Lauren Bacall type sometimes promoted as “The Threat.” In “Two of a Kind,” she enlists Edmond O’Brien in a scam and in “Bad for Each Other,” written by Irving Wallace and Horace McCoy, she inveigles idealistic doctor Charlton Heston into giving the profitable life a try.
With her long blond hair and kewpie doll face, Cleo Moore was unmistakable to moviegoers of the 1950s. In “One Girl’s Confession,” she plays an archetypal bad girl who goes good only as a last resort, while in “Over-Exposed” she’s a self-made photographer who has a hard time convincing people she’s on the level.
Evelyn Keyes, author of the irresistible Hollywood memoir “Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister,” displays the widest range here. In “Dangerous Blondes,” she plays bright and lively as half of a husband-and-wife detective team; in “The Killer That Stalked New York” she is moving as a Typhoid Mary type who unknowingly brings smallpox to Manhattan.
Rochelle Hudson is the least known of these actresses, and her films are the pulpiest of the series. “Girls Under 21" has her as a gangster’s moll returning to the old neighborhood, while the truly bizarre “Island of Doomed Men” has her costarring as the wife of Peter Lorre’s demented slave driver.
An interesting aspect of many of these films is the way a concern for social issues coexists with even the most unapologetic melodrama. “The Dark Past” deals with rehabilitation versus imprisonment, “Bad for Each Other” talks of the need to give back to society, “Over-Exposed” concerns itself with journalistic ethics. Clearly, pulp intended for adults has more to recommend it than the youth-oriented pabulum of today.
UCLA Film & Television Archive presents “Cool Drinks of Water: Columbia’s Noir Girls of the ‘40s and ‘50s,” 7:30 p.m. (unless otherwise indicated) at Billy Wilder Theater, Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. (310) 206-8013 or www.cinema.ucla.edu.
Friday: “The Glass Wall,” “Human Desire”
Sunday at 7 p.m.: “Two of a Kind,” “Bad for Each Other”
Oct. 8: “My Name Is Julia Ross,” “The Dark Past”
Oct. 12 at 7 p.m.: “One Girl’s Confession,” “Over-Exposed”
Oct. 17: “Dangerous Blondes,” “The Killer That Stalked New York”
Oct. 18: “Girls Under 21,” “Island of Doomed Men”