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Molls With Claws: Film Noir at the Roxie

Wednesday, May 3 2000
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The "big house," midnight cityscapes, and sleazy hotels, yes -- but swamps? produce markets? LSD parties? Judging by the Roxie's exhaustive, 19-day festival, film noir is the most democratic of genres, placing its hapless heroes and molls with claws not only in the familiar noir haunts but also in a dizzying array of hitherto unglimpsed, but surprisingly hospitable, locales. In Jules Dassin's moody masterpiece Thieves' Highway (1949), San Francisco's produce district (seen to splendid advantage in location shooting) unloads world-weary whores, murderous merchants, and European existentialism along with its apples and potatoes. Meanwhile, John Frankenheimer's brilliantly black Seconds (1968) takes place mostly in plush, brightly lit houses and offices, and Andre de Toth's Dark Waters (1944) nicely transplants the noir urban landscape to a gnarly Louisiana plantation complete with swamps, quicksand, and a crazed Gothic heroine.

Of course, the more reassuring realms of the genre are also on view here for those who prefer not to be doubly dislocated. The climax of Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai occurs in a hall of mirrors, appropriate indeed for its deadly, duplicitous heroine, played by a blond Rita Hayworth. Crane Wilbur's gloriously seedy The Story of Molly X (1949) surveys the glistening nether worlds of San Francisco's fleabag hotels and the women's prison at Tehachapi.

The real revelation of the fest is how, from the '50s on, television blasted noir's blackness into America's dream dens. Among the treasures unearthed are a rare Hitchcock-directed hour, Four O'Clock (1957), a fabulously sadistic tale of one of Hitch's paranoid "little men"; One Is a Wanderer (1958), a hellish half-hour inside the head of a Regular Guy going to pieces (subtly played by Fred MacMurray); and Michael Ritchie's wonderfully Byzantine TV movie The Outsider (1968), a counterculture policier complete with acid parties, go-go clubs, and a charmingly dissipated hero who's as much punching bag as private eye.

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Gary Morris

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