The Story of Molly X
Cast & Crew
After the murder of her gangster husband Rick, Molly announces that she is taking over his gang. The men in the gang agree, but Anne, the girl friend of member Rod Markle, is upset, as she suspects that Rod is romantically interested in Molly. Later, when the end of the war is declared, Molly and the gang decide to rob an expensive San Francisco jewelry store, using the celebration as a cover for their activities. After breaking in through the bootery next door, the gang inadvertently activates the jewelry store's alarm system, which sets off both an alarm and chemical gas. One of the men, Cash Brady, is gassed, and they are forced to leave him behind. Molly wonders aloud if Anne was behind the failed robbery, after which Rod not only confesses his love to Molly, but admits that he killed her husband. The upset Molly pulls out her gun and shoots Rod just as Cash, having eluded the police, arrives. Cash then disposes of Rod's body and places her gun atop a telephone booth in their apartment building. As she enters her apartment, Molly is arrested by police captain Breen for grand theft. After Rod's body is found, Breen then questions Molly about the gangster's murder, but she remains silent. Anne visits Molly in jail and vows revenge for the death of her boyfriend. Molly is tried and convicted of grand theft and is sent to the women's penitentiary in Tehachapi. After two weeks in hospital quarantine, Molly is integrated into the prison population, where she is soon given the "silent treatment" for her uncooperative ways. During a meeting, prison staff members state their belief that Molly is acting out of fear, and must be "hiding something." Molly is indeed tormented by the thought that the police will find her gun, but finally puts aside her fears and becomes a productive member of the prison population. After six months in prison, Molly is brought before the prison board of trustees, where she is told that she has been given a seven-year sentence, but with good behavior, she could be released in as little as three years. Molly's good news is dampened by the arrival of Anne, who has purposely gotten herself convicted of forgery so that she can confront Molly and avenge Rod. Just before Molly's first parole hearing, the prison suffers a series of thefts and the stolen items are found in Molly's cell. Molly convinces her fellow inmates to allow her to find the real thief, and she later forces Anne to confess to the thefts. Soon thereafter, Molly is paroled to Los Angeles and is warned by her parole officer not to leave the city or have any contact with her old gang. She then gets a job with dress manufacturer Chris Revo. Soon, Molly and Chris are dating, but Molly's happiness is cut short again by Anne, who informs her that Cash has been arrested for murder. Knowing that Molly is planning to return to San Francisco, Anne telephones Breen. The policeman watches Molly as she retrieves her gun, then follows her back to his office, where she has gone to turn herself in. Cash is then brought before Molly and he confesses to the crime. She protests that he is just trying to protect her, but the gangster tells Molly that she only wounded Rod, so he "finished the job." Breen confirms that Cash's gun was the real murder weapon and Molly begins to cry, realizing that she can finally begin to lead an honest life.
Glenn E. Anderson
Leslie I. Carey
A. Roland Fields
Russell A. Gausman
David S. Horsley
Joan St. Oegger
Notes from Noir City 2008 - NOTES FROM NOIR CITY: 2008 EDITION, the 10th Annual Festival in L.A. (Updated 4/30)
The 10th Annual Noir City film festival at Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre went out with a bang on April 24 with a stunning new 35mm print of Woman in Hiding (1950), a forgotten thriller starring Ida Lupino, Stephen McNally, Warren Duff and Peggy Dow, directed by Michael Gordon.
Basically, Woman in Hiding is overwrought but fun, with some top-notch and suspenseful sequences. And it really moves. Under the opening credits, we are placed in the back seat of a speeding car, with Lupino at the helm. We see the car careering down a winding road, Lupino driving either maniacally or out of control, and as soon as the credits end, it plunges spectacularly off a bridge and into a river below. Was it an accident? Suicide?
Dissolve to the next morning, with workers retrieving the car from the water, and we suddenly hear this delicious voiceover: "That's my body they're looking for." We also see an unusual sight here: men firing an old cannon into the water to try and dislodge Lupino's missing body from the riverbed. The strangeness of that image combined with Lupino's seemingly disembodied voice makes for an utterly captivating moment, and we are completely hooked. After all, not many movies have flashbacks delivered by a corpse. (Sunset Blvd. comes to mind, and that film also came out in 1950!)
WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
A flashback reveals that Lupino married Stephen McNally, manager of her father's North Carolina mill, after her father was killed in an accident there. But it's pretty clear right off the bat that McNally is an evil guy who killed Lupino's father and married her just so that he could gain ownership of the mill himself. When Lupino finally figures out McNally's evil nature while on their honeymoon, he cuts the brakes of their car, knowing she will try to escape in the middle of the night. Sure enough, she does, and the car goes off the bridge, and we catch up to the present to see Lupino watching the rescue efforts from high above the river the next morning. And now she begins to run and hide from the crazed McNally, knowing that the only person who could verify her story is Peggy Dow, since Dow used to be involved with McNally and knows what a psycho he is.
What's interesting about this plot construction is that at first we think this will be a movie about the events leading up to Lupino's death. Then we think it'll be about whether she did in fact marry a psycho who's trying to kill her. But those questions are answered sooner than we think and ultimately the movie is about whether she can escape him and convince anyone of the truth. She fails at both more than once before finally (of course) succeeding.
That's one way the film moves - by exceeding our expectations as to what it really is about. The other way is by sheer propulsion to location after location. Lupino is constantly on the move, be it in a car, on a train, working in a diner, running in the woods, trying to escape a hotel, and so on. The picture may suffer from occasional histrionics, but it's also excitingly, exhilaratingly, cinematic.
Howard Duff (who looks like a cross between John Payne and Farley Granger) enters the story as a former soldier and current newsstand salesman when he notices Lupino at a train station and later sees her picture in a magazine; McNally is offering a $5000 reward for information on her whereabouts. McNally worms his way into Lupino's confidence but ultimately (and devastatingly) delivers her right into the clutches of McNally before she escapes yet again and Duff finally comes to believe her. Through this portion, we share Lupino's paranoia of not being able to trust anyone, and of worrying that everyone's out to get her because they all might see her published picture. It's a very effective noir feeling.
Even when Lupino finally finds Peggy Dow, Dow turns out not to be the savior we were hoping for. Dow, by the way, looks stunning, and it's a shame that this talented fox made so few films before retiring to marriage and domestic life in 1951. (She did appear in some other noirs, including Undertow , Shakedown  and The Sleeping City , but her best-remembered picture is Harvey .)
The ending, which involves a showdown in the tangled catwalks of a factory, is especially satisfying because McNally finally meets his fate when he is startled to see Lupino after thinking he had already killed her. So, in a way, from his perspective, she does come back from the grave, nicely echoing our own perspective of the opening sequence of the movie.
Stephen McNally is wonderful in his menacing role. Every time he pops up, which is often, it's truly scary, and his death generated loud applause at the screening. Ida Lupino was already writing, directing and producing her own films during this period, but her acting chops did not suffer. She does a good job conveying her character's deep, utter fear as well as smarts, and is as usual most appealing to look at in the process!
Director Michael Gordon made this film right before his famous Cyrano de Bergerac (1950); not long afterwards, he was blacklisted. Gordon was a talented artist who came from the stage and cut his teeth on some pretty good B movies like Crime Doctor (1943) before his career was effective ruined because of his private, personal politics. (He did later direct the hit Pillow Talk .) In Woman in Hiding, Gordon maintains excellent pace and shows his mettle in some suspense scenes like the one in a hotel's emergency staircase, in which McNally chases Lupino, catches her, and is about to throw her down the middle until someone comes along. Gordon even makes a cameo as a man with a public locker key; he looks sort of like a young Jerry Orbach!
The print was new and gorgeous; it seemed to have been timed perfectly, unlike one or two of the other new prints which seemed a bit dark.
by Jeremy Arnold
Noir City 2008 Report, Part 4: Two Edward G. Robinson Films & TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY
Two rare Edward G. Robinson films were on offer over the weekend in the Noir City film festival in L.A. While The Red House is available in poor-quality public-domain DVDs, both films are practically never screened or shown on television, making them highly sought-after. As it turns out, they're both incredibly interesting though uneven.
Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) boasts one of noir's most evocative titles, and the first half of the film lives up to that poetic, dreamy promise. A woman (Gail Russell) appears to be afraid of the stars in the night as she runs to a train overpass and prepares to throw herself off. Saved at the last moment by her boyfriend (John Lund), the two return to a restaurant where Edward G. Robinson awaits them. How did Robinson know to send him to the train station, Lund asks? And Robinson tells them his story, revealed in flashback... He was a fake "mentalist" who toured around with his partners Jerome Cowan and Virginia Bruce putting on his act, until he started having actual visions which turned out to be true. Sometimes they were premonitions of which horse would win a race; sometimes they were of individuals' deaths and other disturbing things. Robinson found he had no control over this power. It struck randomly. He skipped out of town, leaving Bruce and Cowan to marry even though Robinson and Bruce had been involved. By leaving, Robinson hoped to prevent her death, which he foresaw. It didn't work. Russell is Bruce and Cowan's now-adult daughter, and Robinson has made it his mission to make sure that nothing will happen to her, now that a tragedy has also befallen her father Cowan.
This is all captivating stuff (more so on screen than on paper), delivered in flashbacks with Robinson's great voice describing the events and his feelings. The only problem is that halfway through the movie, when the flashbacks end and we continue in the present, there's a huge shift in tone and momentum. All the characters hole up in a mansion to wait and see if Robinson's premonition of Russell's death at 11pm on a certain night will take place. Robinson becomes under suspicion as a murderer and the movie loses his subjective presence - a big mistake. Instead, William Demarest dominates this portion as a cop, and his broad-comedy screen persona takes over, too. It's really disappointing, and the movie deteriorates into hokum.
Even Robinson thought so - literally. In his memoir All My Yesterdays, he devoted a mere eight words to the film, calling it "unadulterated hokum that I did for the money."
But there's still that mesmerizing first half! What stays in one's mind is how the story is actually about fate and doom - staples of film noir. Robinson is held captive by these mighty forces, and we are made to feel it strongly. The very night and stars are established to be ominous, a danger, which is about as pessimistic as you can get in a noir; as soon as it turns to night throughout this film, we automatically feel uneasy. Pretty amazing. Victor Young's beautiful score also does much to accentuate the mysteriousness of the story.
One of the pleasures of film noir (if "pleasure" is the right word!) is discovering how fatalism and doom can express themselves in so very many ways. In these movies, it's usually via an urban crime story in which we are aligned with a poor sap who gets sucked into a scheme which can only end one way, but there are many exceptions and variations out there, and one of them is The Red House (1947), a strange, dark story shot in the farm country of northern California. The movie's feeling of "noir" stems from a menacingly photographed rural landscape and, on a thematic level, Edward G. Robinson's psychological entrapment by his disturbing personal past.
At first we see the landscape as sunny and bucolic, and a teen romance story is set in motion involving Rory Calhoun, Lon McCallister, Allene Roberts, and a quite stunning 20-year-old Julie London (in one of her earliest screen appearances). McCallister goes to Roberts' farm after school to help around her parents' property, but we quickly discover that those parents (Edward G. Robinson and Judith Anderson) are in fact brother and sister, and Roberts is their foster daughter. The weirdness of that situation points to something ominous in their past. When McCallister declares he will take a shortcut home by walking through the "Ox Head woods," Robinson goes into a conniption, warning the boy not to go that way and to beware "the screams in the night" that he will hear there. Just as suddenly, a ferocious windstorm picks up, and the entire landscape is one very scary place. McCallister goes through the woods anyway, in a bravura sequence in which the darkness, wind, gnarled trees and wonderfully eerie Miklos Rozsa music all combine to create a feeling of intense dread and deep fear that everyone has felt at one time or another in their childhood.
Robinson will go to any length to keep people from trespassing in the Ox Head woods and venturing near the decrepit, old red house that can be found within. Why the woods and the red house are off limits and so scary is a question that the rest of the movie takes its time in revealing. (Too much time, to be honest.) Suffice it to say that old family demons arise after being hidden away for many years, and that Robinson's kindly father-like character turns out to mask something very sinister.
The Red House is atmospheric and superbly scored but also a bit too static, even with all the psychological turmoil going on. Perhaps it's the teen romance subplot, which isn't all that interesting. Or perhaps it's the directing of Delmer Daves, whom I've personally always found to be a stronger writer than director. (He does both here, having adapted the film from a novel.) I kept wishing that Jacques Tourneur had directed this picture, or that Val Lewton had produced it. Imagine what they could have done with this spooky material! A good film might have become great.
The cast features popular young actor Lon McCallister, who had quite a career going at this point, but Rory Calhoun makes a bigger impression. When he's in the frame, he really commands it. One final note about The Red House: it was made as an independent film, released by United Artists, which is why it's in the public domain and remains so hard to see in a good-quality print. (Here it was screened in a 16mm print loaned by UCLA.) Robinson and producer Sol Lesser, a former chief of RKO, set up a production company and then managed to raise the financing and a distribution deal on the strength of the talent involved. In his memoir, Robinson wrote simply, "It was a moody piece, got moody notices, but I think it made a few bucks."
Tomorrow is Another Day
A last-minute replacement for Sunday's promised show of The Clay Pigeon (1949) was Tomorrow is Another Day (1951), directed by Felix Feist. (Pigeon's print didn't show up.) The program notes describe the picture as being like "Gun Crazy scripted by Steinbeck," and there's something to that characterization.
Steve Cochran stars as a man released from jail after 18 years; since he was just 13 when he was sent in, he finds that the world has moved on without him, and he's lonely and vulnerable. Early scenes of Cochran poking around town, bewildered by a modern car's gadgets, ordering three pieces of different pies at once in a diner, and the like, are compelling. After being duped by a local reporter who wanted to secretly get a story of the freed murderer's first day out of prison, Cochran leaves town because he knows no one will hire him, and finds his way to New York, where he's never been before. He gets involved with taxi dancer Ruth Roman, and before we know it, there's a tussle in Roman's room involving a police officer, who is shot and later dies; Roman and Cochran go on the run, believing themselves hunted by the police, and they wind up in California to start a new life as farm workers.
It's a strange plot direction but allows for some beautifully scripted and played scenes with a fellow family of workers headed by Ray Teal and Lurene Tuttle, which is where the Steinbeck comparison comes in; through these scenes, we get a glimpse of Americana through the eyes of minimum-wage workers trying to make it honestly and provide for their families. Teal and Tuttle's struggle over their temptation to turn Cochran over to the police when they discover he is a fugitive is a sequence at once utterly believable and purely American. It's wonderfully acted by both, too.
Even though Tomorrow turns into a lovers-on-the-run movie (and a pretty good one at that, with one or two very suspenseful set pieces) its most penetrating "noir" feeling comes from the early scenes of Cochran unable to find work or a footing in life. The world is seen as a big, strange, unrelenting place, with no room for this man who only wants a fair shake. Adding to the unsettling, hopeless feeling is the fact that Cochran is like a boy in a man's body as a result of having grown up in prison. He has limited skills and no clue how to talk to or behave with women. It's a fascinating notion, but the movie is only able to hint at his virginal state so far, due to production code requirements.
by Jeremy Arnold
REPORT #3 on Eddie Muller's NOIR CITY Festival at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles
Peter Lorre got his own night of B noirs over the weekend in wonderful 35mm prints, but before they unspooled, noir fans got a look at a new short film by noir historian and author Eddie Muller. The entire festival is basically Muller's brainchild, and in the years since he started it with the programmers at the American Cinematheque, he has formed the Film Noir Foundation, which does good work to keep these pictures alive and available. His 20-minute short The Grand Inquisitor (2008), based on his own published short story, stars 90-year-old Marsha Hunt, who knows a thing or two about classic noir: among her dozens of credits stretching back to 1935 is Anthony Mann's masterful Raw Deal (1948). Here, she plays a mysterious woman who opens the door of her San Francisco home one day to find a young woman (Leah Dashe) with some questions about her past. Dashe has acquired some old textbooks with cipher markings scrawled on many of the pages which seem to match those of the notorious Zodiac Killer of the 1960s; she has traced the books to Hunt's dead husband and hopes that Hunt can shed some light on this mystery and basically answer the question: was her husband Zodiac?
Hunt initially protests the claims as ludicrous, but slowly we realize that perhaps Dashe is onto something. Since the story is inspired by the world of noir, things inevitably turn darker and more ominous, and soon it's clear that Dashe was foolish not to tell anyone where she was going this day. Hunt looks marvelous at 90 and gives the part her all, right through the disturbing and shocking finale. Hunt was at the screening and took part in a lively Q&A afterward with Muller.
The evening then moved on to the two Peter Lorre movies. Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) is not as rare as it once was; it pops up on TCM from time to time. Many consider it the first true film noir, and a programming article I previously wrote on its production can be found elsewhere on tcm.com. Seeing it again in such a nice print with a sizable audience was a pleasure. Van Nest Polgase's imaginative production design has great impact on the big screen; the nightmare sequence remains a stunning piece of expressionism which not only visualizes a character's (John McGuire's) paranoia but also makes serious comments on America's imperfect justice system. There are few better-realized dream sequences out there. As a whole, it's an amazing movie considering it runs 64 minutes and was so, so cheaply made.
Peter Lorre made The Face Behind the Mask (1941) soon after Stranger on the Third Floor, and it gives him a full leading-man, romantic role. It's worth remembering that while Lorre tends to be remembered fondly for his character parts in films like Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, he was by 1940 totally established. Not only had he been a full-fledged star in over a dozen German films, most famously M (1931), he had been top-lining American movies like Mad Love (1935) and the Mr. Moto series since arriving in Hollywood.
He's awfully sympathetic in The Face Behind the Mask as a Hungarian immigrant newly arrived in New York. His character is armed with an appealing mixture of naivete and total enthusiasm for America and the opportunities it provides those willing to work. And Lorre is willing to work. Experienced in both watchmaking and aircraft maintenance, his upbeat personality wins him friends easily, and he takes a job as a dishwasher in the cheap boarding house he moves into. A fire breaks out one night, however, and Lorre is left with a horrendously disfigured face - shown to us a few brief but effective times.
Lorre now can't get work; his face is too horrible for anyone to bear. Desperate for money for plastic surgery, he turns to a life of crime. He is very successful at it and eventually is rolling in dough. His face is too far gone for reconstructive surgery, however, and he must settle for a mask, built by a doctor working from Lorre's passport photo. He continues to conduct robberies until he meets a blind woman (Evelyn Keyes) with whom he falls in love. But when his cohorts kill her (with a bomb meant for Lorre), he gets his revenge in a bizarre finale that finds everyone crash landing in the middle of the Arizona desert and dying painful deaths. Lorre's death is essentially suicide, though he takes the bad guys down with him.
There are other pulpy scenes of violence in this film, including a brutal torture sequence, and Lorre builds much sympathy as we see the world refusing to give him a chance no matter how hard he tries. His journey from optimism to alienation is a bleak and very "noir" one, and the ending is certainly true to what has been established. Lorre spends quite a bit of time before he gets his mask with his back to the camera, or in shadow, his face hidden from us, and as a result his dialogue sounds like voiceover. This has an interesting effect of building subjectivity; the de facto voiceover allows us to enter his psyche in a more direct way, and our sympathy deepens because of it.
Lorre describes his situation at one point as "a horrible nightmare from which I can never awake. " He doesn't.
by Jeremy Arnold
REPORT #2 on Eddie Muller's NOIR CITY Festival at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles
The same smoothness that made James Mason so likable on screen could also make him supremely menacing and dangerous, given the right role of course. He was no stranger to film noir, having starred in Caught (1949) and The Reckless Moment (1949) - each directed by Max Ophuls and each a highly respected example of the style. Two more fascinating Mason films highlight his unique persona even more.
The Man Between (1953) is a crisp British thriller from director Carol Reed shot on location in post-WWII Berlin, but its feeling is unmistakably noir. A young and most fetching Claire Bloom arrives in Berlin to visit her brother (Geoffrey Toone) and his German wife (Hildegarde Neff), but right from the get-go, she and we sense something ominous afoot. Soon enough, Bloom is embroiled in the thick of a plot involving spies, gangsters and kidnappers from the east and west sides of the city. Mason plays Ivo Kern, a "friend" of Neff's whose mysterious actions and associates have us wondering if he's a good guy or a bad guy. Ultimately, he's both, and he brings a great deal of complexity and sympathy to his character (despite an atrocious and half-hearted attempt at a German accent!).
Eventually Bloom herself is kidnapped and brought to East Berlin, and the final act of the story has Mason trying to get her back across the border. Bloom's affections for Mason turn into love when he opens up to her about his vulnerabilities, and a genuinely touching relationship is built, making us truly care about them making it across safely. The ending is bleak and downbeat, true to the spirit of the setting and to film noir. Mason's final act of self-sacrifice makes him literally "the man between": between east and west, good and bad, selfish and selfless. His character is truly a shade of gray.
Director Carol Reed constantly stresses this ambiguity in the way he visually presents Mason in the frame. The way Mason's startling entrances are blocked, and the way he looks ominous in his dark overcoat with the gray city around him, contrasts with his polite, suave manner, and the result is we're fascinated by him even as we don't know what to think about him.
Mostly, though, The Man Between is full of memorable images of a city that is barren and crumbled, full of rubble and despair. Even in the snow, it looks dark and dangerous, conjuring in the audience a feeling a dread. With Mason and Bloom trying by car, train, and foot to escape, the feeling of being trapped in a shadowy, unsafe city in which everyone is trying to get you becomes palpable.
One Way Street (1950) begins as a more traditional noir, with credits over a black-and-white, rain-soaked L.A., but it eventually turns into one of the weirdest noirs you'll ever see. Mason plays an angst-ridden doctor who is associated with a criminal gang led by Dan Duryea. The gang has just stolen $200,000 and they all hide out in an apartment. But Mason quickly pulls off a scheme he has been hatching with Duryea's girlfriend (Marta Toren), and he escapes with her and the money. After disposing of tough-guy Jack Elam, they survive a car crash, rent another car, drive to Tijuana, and hire a small plane to Mexico City. But the plane is forced to make a crash landing in the Mexican wilderness, and Mason and Toren (and the money) end up in a tiny village waiting for the plane to be repaired. This forms a long stretch of the film; the effect is of two "noir" characters being plopped into the middle of a Mexico western, complete with vicious bandits and federales on horseback, and a scene or two of brutal violence. Mason evens dons a sombrero, for goodness sake!
Mason finds joy in applying his medical skill to decent people (and animals), and the peaceful landscape has a calming, rejuvenating effect on Mason and Toren both. By the time they return to L.A. to finish their business with Duryea, who's been trying to track them down, they're in love. The Mexico sequence is something like an extended version of the Mexico sequence in Out of the Past, though One Way Street is not nearly as good as that classic. The Mexico sequence here, full of daylight, openness and kind people, does contrast startlingly with the L.A. of the beginning and the end, which has the effect of making those bookends seem even more strongly "noir." Ever-oily Duryea and his henchman William Conrad also lend a noir feel by their presence alone.
As in The Man Between, Mason in One Way Street spends much time on the run with a woman with whom he falls in love. In both films, his character is fatalistic and cynical, and in both films he dies tragically. In The Man Between, there's poignancy in the sacrifice; in One Way Street, it feels more like the result of the Hollywood Production Code, but the movie, uneven as it is, nonetheless is memorable and worth seeing if one ever gets the chance. Both titles screened in very nice 35mm prints, so hopefully that chance will come.
by Jeremy Arnold
Report #1 on Eddie Muller's NOIR CITY Festival at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles
To Los Angeles-based classic movie nuts, April in Hollywood has for the last decade meant one thing above all else: FILM NOIR!!
The annual "Noir City" festival at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre is one of the most enjoyable classic film fests around. The movies are almost all shown in 35mm, and every year there are more newly-struck prints thanks to the studio-badgering efforts of Eddie Muller's Film Noir Foundation. The programming choices always include a mixture of mainstream classics (such as Night and the City  this time around), rarities one may have only heard about but never seen (e.g. The Face Behind the Mask ), and true obscurities that seem to have been exhumed from unmarked film graves (Hell's Five Hours ). Furthermore, there are always some guests on hand from the cast or crew of the films themselves (sadly but inevitably, a fewer number each year). And finally, the theater itself is a first-class and historic space, dating back to 1922 when Robin Hood, starring Douglas Fairbanks and directed by Allan Dwan, premiered in Hollywood's first-ever opening gala, an idea conceived of by theater owner Sid Grauman. The popcorn's not bad, either.
It's all enough to make this enthusiast forgive the festival for including some titles each year that aren't really "film noir." I'm sure the programmers know that not all crime dramas made in the 1940s and 1950s are "film noir." They just love these entertaining and tough movies, even the sort-of-lousy ones, and they'll take whatever chance they can to resurrect as many as possible. Gotta love it.
Yours truly will see a couple handfuls of the 26 features on display this year, and contribute written reports to this space...
The Story of Molly X
The first few nights of this year's fest were comprised of Desert Fury (1947), Dead Reckoning (1947), Cornered (1945), To the Ends of the Earth (1948), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), and Wicked Woman (1954), all of which I had to miss. (I'd already seen all but one.) Instead, first up for me was The Story of Molly X (1949), starring June Havoc in one of her few true leading roles.
She's the head of a gang of male bank robbers, and she shows no reluctance to sock men or women on the jaw if need be. "If I have to slap you down, you'll stay down!" she warns Dorothy Hart in one sequence, after having taken a slap from Hart herself. This sequence takes place in a bedroom, with male gang members on the other side of a closed door; in other words, she's in a traditionally "female" space asserting herself as the tough boss.
Havoc eventually shoots one of her "boys" dead when she learns that he had killed her husband. Another gang member (John Russell) then helps her to escape and dispose of her gun before both are arrested for attempted bank robbery. At the trial, one of the film's best exchanges comes when a prosecutor asks a gang member about Havoc's role as his leader, saying, "Isn't it unusual to find a woman in such a position?"
"Used to be. Ain't anymore. Next thing you know, the dames'll be taking over the whole racket!"
Molly X then turns into a women's prison movie. Havoc is sent to Tehachapi, where pretty much the bulk of the picture plays out. Her initial reluctance to work and take part in prison life gives way to her eventual reformation. The prison looks like a pretty swell place - no cells or handcuffs, and the "girls" can wear dresses and make-up! Meanwhile, detective Charles McGraw, lending his usual tough-guy demeanor, is still looking for that gun to try and solve the murder of the gang member. When Havoc finally gets out of prison after some number of years, the gun is found and a final, not-too-believable twist saves her. The film ends on a note of McGraw being impressed with the rehabilitation program at Tehachapi, which he had earlier criticized as being too coddling.
Throughout the movie, Havoc walks around with a suitably tough attitude, though it's not at the expense of looking feminine and even acting a bit girlish. It's an uneven performance in an uneven movie, though. An inevitable consequence of the story's set-up is that the movie descends into camp, a difficult thing to avoid in most women's prison movies.
Is it noir? Not really. There's no feeling of doom or oppression going on. The occasional present-tense voiceover - potentially a mesmerizing device - doesn't add much because the movie doesn't otherwise give us moments of getting inside Havoc's skin. If we were made to feel her guilt, or shame, or entrapment, or some other disturbing emotion she feels, then the movie might have entered true noir territory.
There is a psychological component explored in her character, however. The prison officials really want to reform her, and they wonder what it was in her childhood that is still eating away at her. "I never got over being born!" Havoc answers sarcastically at first. But later, we find out that there is something, when Havoc reveals chillingly (and, for the era, shockingly): "At 16 I found out I was a woman. So did my stepfather."
Supporting actress Dorothy Hart, a stunning brunette beauty and former model, really makes an impression. You can't take your eyes off her whenever she's in the frame. She appeared in a few other interesting movies during her brief Hollywood career, notably The Naked City (1948), but Hollywood didn't know what to do with her. She quit the movies in the '50s, moved to New York, did some TV work, and started to work with the U.N. in children's relief causes.
Writer-director Crane Wilbur is one of those names that appears on the credits of an awful lot of well-remembered movies but who remains personally forgotten today. An actor, writer and director, he started working in the silent era. The IMDB lists his first credit as Tommy Gets His Sister Married, a short subject from 1910 featuring the 24-year-old Wilbur in the cast. His first writing credit came five years later, and his first directing credit one year after that. He evidently loved prison movies. His other noirs as director, for example, are Canon City (1948), Outside the Wall (1950), and Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951). And he wrote such prison films as Alcatraz Island (1937), Over the Wall (1938), Blackwell's Island (1939), and Women's Prison (1955). On the other hand, he also wrote some famous non-prison movies like He Walked By Night (1948), House of Wax (1953), and Crime Wave (1954).
By Jeremy Arnold
Notes from Noir City 2008 - NOTES FROM NOIR CITY: 2008 EDITION, the 10th Annual Festival in L.A. (Updated 4/30)
The working titles of the film were Tehachapi and Tehachapi: The Story of Molly X. The film begins with the following written prologue: "The scenes herein were photographed at the actual sites portrayed. The procedures and methods depicted are those currently employed by the California Department of Corrections." The Newsweek review stated that the film was shot on location at the "ultra progressive Institute for Women at Tehachapi." According to Hollywood Reporter news items, actress Ginger Rogers was orginally signed to play the lead roll in The Story of Molly X, but was forced to leave the project due to scheduling conflicts. Prior to the casting of June Havoc, Paulette Goddard and Shelley Winters were considered for the title role, according to Hollywood Reporter news items. Hollywood Reporter production charts include Scott Brady and Charles Drake in the cast, but they did not appear in the released film. Production charts also include actors Ida Moore and Ann Pearce, but their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. According to Hollywood Reporter, the radio team of Cathy and Elliott Lewis made their screen debuts in the picture.