San Diego Noir At La Jolla Athenaeum
New film series kicks off Thursday
Tuesday, July 31, 2018
Film noir is a term coined by French film critics to describe a style of cinema rooted in hard-boiled crime fiction that emerged in the 1940s. It revealed a darkness and cynicism that challenged audiences with something new, a world where women used sex to get what they wanted, where betrayal and deceit were to be expected, and murder was a given.
With so many great films noir to choose from, this series focuses on films with a San Diego connection. The series complements the yearlong noir film series at Digital Gym Cinema called Noir on the Boulevard.
Noir double bill: "The Devil Thumbs a Ride" (1947) and "The Clay Pigeon" (1949)
Studio B-movies were meant to round out a double feature with an A-picture at the top of the bill. So that meant they tended to be shorter fare. To kick off this San Diego Noir we pair two B-movies that come in at a taut 60 minutes each. "The Clay Pigeon" involves an amnesiac Navy veteran and former POW, Jim Fletcher (Bill Williams), who is accused of murdering his war buddy. To help prove his innocence, Jim heads to San Diego to find Martha Gregory (played by "Perry Mason’s" Barbara Hale), the widow of the friend he’s accused of killing. "The Clay Pigeon" serves up an imagined San Diego that is typical of the city’s representation in film noir as the post-war home of ex-military. But in spite of San Diego’s proximity to Hollywood, the "B" budgets of film noir dictated that the city was often represented by sets on studio back lots and L.A. locations.
Tough-guy extraordinaire Lawrence Tierney plays Steve Morgan, a narcissistic, sadistic criminal in "The Devil Thumbs a Ride." The film opens with the robbery of the fictional Bank of San Diego. From there it delivers a warning about who you might want to let into your car because as in the film "The Hitch-Hiker," that person could be a monster.
"Tension" is set in Culver City, California, where mild-mannered drugstore manager Warren Quimby (a young Richard Basehart) tries to convince his restless wife Claire (the fabulous noir femme fatale Audrey Totter) to accept a life of domestic suburban tranquility — a notion that Claire has nothing but disgust for. San Diego isn’t seen in the movie, but it represents a happier time for Claire and Warren — and gets a mention in one of the film’s most memorable lines.
"The Brothers Rico" (1957)
Eddie Rico (Richard Conte) is a former mob accountant who is now the happily married owner of a laundry company. But in the world of film noir, nobody gets away clean. When one of Eddie's brothers disappears, it pulls him back into conflict with the New York mafia. Based on a Georges Simenon story, with some ghostwriting by blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, the film stands as one of the best about organized crime of the 1950s.
The San Diego connection here is an ironic one since Coronado (including the Hotel Del in the background of one driving scene) stands in for the make-believe Bayshore, Florida.
The Grifters (1990)
Classic noir comes from the 1940s and '50s but we include one contemporary noir in the series. Stephen Frears’ acclaimed neo-noir "The Grifters" (co-produced by Martin Scorsese) is based on Jim Thompson’s 1963 novel but the film updates the setting to the '80s. Con artists Roy Dillon (John Cusack) and Myra Langtry (Annette Bening) head down from Los Angeles by train for the La Jolla horse races, where Roy’s mother Lilly (Anjelica Huston) works fixing odds for an East Coast bookie.
In the 1940s, Thompson worked in San Diego and lived in a duplex in Mission Hills, where he wrote his first crime novel. After the war, he worked as a journalist for the San Diego Journal and moved his family to a small house in Linda Vista. He often took weekend outings with his wife to the Del Mar track, which he relocated to La Jolla for the novel. The Paradise Turf track in Phoenix served as the filming location for the fictionalized La Jolla track in the film, but some scenes were filmed in San Diego — keep your eyes peeled for another iconic San Diego location.
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando and Noir Book of the Month Club blogger D.A. Kolodenko present San Diego Noir at the La Jolla Athenaeum on Thursdays in August. Here’s a preview.
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