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Class on Class

Haves vs. Have Nots in noir “master class” virtual teach-in.

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By now, the latter-day popularity of film noir should be a given for aware movie mavens. But how can noir fans satisfy their cravings for classic crime pics plus conversation with like-minded aficionados from home, during the current pandemic’s restrictions on theatrical live screenings?

Elliot Lavine, veteran curator/programmer of noir events at SF’s Roxie Cinema, has the answer: I Wake Up Streaming, a selection of twelve vintage noirs combined with a series of “master class” discussions, led by Lavine and taking place online. For the “ticket price” of $5-$25 per class (sliding scale), audiences get links to a rotating double feature of noirs, capped by Lavine’s Zoom interactive critique session one week later. Six classes, twelve flicks, a dozen intriguingly mismatched filmmakers.

Lavine has applied his knowledgeable showmanship to the lineup, a wide-ranging collection of film noirs with the common denominator that they’re all in the public domain and thus available on YouTube. But discriminating fans with a sense of humor could divide the twelve titles into at least two distinct classes, by director. The “ruling class” -- represented by Fritz Lang (Scarlet Street), Joseph Losey (M), Ida Lupino (The Hitch-Hiker), Joseph H. Lewis (The Big Combo), Rudolph Maté (D.O.A.), and Arthur Ripley (The Chase) -- generally consists of the better-known movies. As is the case with every film noir festival ever presented, a programmer needs to balance the more well-known movies with the more obscure, in order to simultaneously entertain seasoned noir hands as well as newbies.

One rung below the rulers dwell the more obscure “regular folks,” largely working on Hollywood’s Poverty Row – among them Steve Sekely (maker of the gangster yarn Hollow Triumph, in collaboration with actor Paul Henreid), W. Lee Wilder (Billy Wilder’s older brother, director of The Pretender, an embezzlement melodrama), and John Reinhardt (Open Secret, a social-problem pic about anti-Semitism, starring John Ireland in a rare sympathetic role).

Not surprisingly, the cheap end of the scale is where the flavor is. King of the cellar dwellers, now as always, is notorious writer-director Edgar G. Ulmer, whose justifiably renowned no-budget nail-biter Detour long ago attained noir nirvana. Less celebrated but perhaps even more provocative is Dementia, a lone woman’s 1955 excursion into a shadowy, dreamlike Night Town of suppressed sexuality and violence, directed by John H. Parker, arguably a disciple of filmmaker Carl Th. Dreyer. Enthused comedy auteur Preston Surges: “A work of art. It stirred my blood and purged my libido.”

But the most lurid, off-the-charts item on Lavine’s shopping list is probably actor-turned-writer-director Bruno VeSota’s Female Jungle, which asks: Who slew the beautiful starlet on the street? Was it the amnesiac drunken cop (fabled Tinsel Town tough guy Lawrence Tierney), the nervous nightclub caricaturist (actor/co-writer Burt Kaiser), the suavely sinister older gentleman (John Carradine), Candy Price the bleach-blond siren (Jayne Mansfield), or overacting champ Joe the bartender (James Kodl)? Cue dime-store dialogue and iffy acting, rescued by inventive mise-en-scene and inspired bargain-basement nuttiness. Female Jungle is ripe for critical rediscovery, swears Lavine. “It’s absolutely startling. It belongs in the highest echelon of noir filmmaking.”

Lavine’s programming maintains its delicate balancing act between recognized noir achievements and “films that have been ignored” for the entire thoughtfully laid out series. The spirit of Fritz Lang hovers over all – particularly director Losey’s 1951 remake of M, Lang’s monumental 1931 dissection of the case of a psychotic child murderer, originally and unforgettably portrayed by Peter Lorre. “Losey’s version is every bit as good as Lang’s.” In the killer role, actor David Wayne “earns a different kind of empathy than Lorre,” insists Lavine, citing the character’s remarkably frank masturbation scene. Losey’s M, set in contemporary Los Angeles, is a strong, challenging psychodrama, artfully presented.

Links and discussion reservations for the first double feature – Scarlet Street and Detour -- are available beginning October 7, with the first “master class” scheduled for Tuesday, October 13 (7:00-8:30 p.m.). For further info, go to Roxie.com

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