Rosemarie and I are already hard at work on the second book in the classic Hollywood mystery series featuring Edith Head we’re writing under the name Renee Patrick. (Design for Dying, book number one, comes out from Macmillan’s Tor/Forge Books in April 2016. People are camping out already! Not for our book. They’re just, you know, camping out.) The time had come, we’d decided, for some field research. Say a trip to Los Angeles, followed by a jaunt up the coast for the opening weekend of the thirteenth Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco.
It’s a time-honored Hollywood tradition: if your journey begins with the sighting of a star, then fortune will smile upon you. We sit down for our first breakfast and who should be at the next table but Commander Adama himself, Academy Award nominee Edward James Olmos. (Who am I kidding? He’ll always be Lieutenant Castillo to me.) Already we were in clover.
Our initial post-Olmos stop was a key reason for making the trip now: we wanted to see the mammoth Hollywood Costume exhibit
before it closes. Presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, it’s a stunning show, with dramatic staging of over 150 movie costumes; Marlene Dietrich in Morocco
lights a cigarette for Catherine Tramell (Basic Instinct
) as L.A. Confidential
’s Lynn Bracken looks on. Our heroine Edith Head is well represented, with her iconic green suit worn by Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo
on display. The immersive section on costume design as collaboration features a dazzling “conversation” among Edie, Hitch and Tippi Hedren about the clothes in The Birds
. The craft of the costume designer is explored in detail in this decades-spanning exhibit. (Later we were fortunate to spend time with its curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis, the acclaimed costume designer of Raiders of the Lost Ark
– and even more impressively, the person responsible for the wardrobe in longtime Chez K favorite ¡Three Amigos!
Given those credentials I’m amazed I was able to ask any questions, but somehow I managed.)
Hollywood Costume runs through March 2, which roughly coincides with the closing date of Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933-1950
at the Skirball Cultural Center. This exhibition focuses on the role of filmmakers who fled Nazi Germany in the production of the glittering comedies and dark dramas of the Golden Age of Hollywood. More costumes are included in this show, which also merits a visit.
The primary purpose for our expedition was to set foot on Edith’s old domain: Paramount Pictures, the studio where she spent the majority of her career. To our delight, Paramount’s archivists welcomed us with open arms – “Edith would have loved being in a mystery novel,” we were told – and gave us a full tour. The high point was undoubtedly the costume archive, 80% of which consisted of Edith Head originals. To be in the same room as, say, Barbara Stanwyck’s beaded bolero jacket from The Lady Eve
and inspect it in detail was enough to induce lightheadedness.
|Paramount's Bronson Gate|
Edith willed her estate to the Academy, so our final destination was the Margaret Herrick Library to look at her papers. It’s impossible to convey the thrill of holding a letter on Alfred Hitchcock’s personal stationery – signed ‘Hitch,’ naturally – in your hands. I’d heard that furniture from Edith’s house had been placed in the Herrick’s Special Collections reading room, so before leaving I asked which pieces were hers. “That table you’ve been sitting at all day, for one,” the librarian said. Truly the power of Olmos was strong.
Some time at Noir City San Francisco was mandatory, given the Seattle iteration of the festival is on hiatus pending a move to the Cinerama
. This year’s theme is marriage, with your humble correspondent penning the companion article in the latest issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine
. Rosemarie and I christened the opening weekend at Trick Dog
, recently named one of the fifty best bars in the world – love that Chinese menu; try the #2 – then strolled to the Castro for the premiere of a new 35mm restoration of an old favorite. In 1950’s Woman on the Run
, Ann Sheridan’s estranged husband witnesses a mob killing and goes on the lam. When slick newspaperman Dennis O’Keefe encourages her to track her wayward spouse down, Ann discovers new facets to her old man and falls for him all over again. Shot in San Francisco, the movie played like gangbusters to a capacity crowd, with master of ceremonies Eddie Muller cagily adding a then-and-now featurette spotlighting the locations.
|This is the the jacket we saw. Up close.|
Up next, the first in a mini-tribute to actress Joan Fontaine. Born to be Bad
(1950) casts several actors against type. Usual cad Zachary Scott is a decent if obscenely wealthy man, Robert Ryan shines as a cocky writer (“Seen the view? It’s better with me in it”), and Mel Ferrer does his best George Sanders as a cynical social climbing painter. They all flutter around Christabel Caine, and alas our Joan was a bit long in the tooth to play a scheming ingénue, leaving a void at the film’s center. Still, director Nicholas Ray keeps the melodrama at a steady boil and it was fun to see the original ending deemed too scandalous for release.
The experience left me wanting Fontaine at her best, and one of my rules is never pass up Hitchcock on the big screen, so that meant a Saturday matinee of her Oscar-winning turn in Suspicion
(1941). We skipped Joan in the sturdy 1953 issue film The Bigamist
– a boy’s gotta eat – and returned to the Castro for a signing of the Noir City 2014 Annual
, featuring work by yours truly, FNF honcho Muller, our Los Angeles sightseeing companion Christa Faust, Duane Swierczynski, Wallace Stroby, Jake Hinkson and plenty more. Look for it at Amazon soon. Joanie was back and at her bitchy best in the find of the festival: 1947’s Ivy
, an Edwardian chiller with Fontaine as a fortune hunter with a husband, a lover, and her eyes on an even bigger prize. She’s in her element here, Ivy’s discreet villainy perfectly tailored to her sensibilities. More Edwardian noir followed with Robert Siodmak’s The Suspect
(1944), an elegant and heartbreaking gloss on the infamous Dr. Crippen case boasting a magnificent Charles Laughton performance.
|Christa Faust, ace designer Michael Kronenberg, yours truly, and Edwardian gent Eddie Muller at the Castro book signing|
Sunday’s double-bill spotlighted suspense from that maker of sudsers supreme, Douglas Sirk. The script for Shockproof
(1949) was watered down considerably from writer Samuel Fuller’s original version; no doubt two-fisted Sam’s take on the story of parole officer Cornel Wilde falling for one of his charges (Patricia Knight) and into a heap of trouble would have been considerably meaner. A minor film, but on this viewing I was able to appreciate how Sirk’s supple direction preserved the remaining Fuller touches. Sleep, My Love
(1948) is gossamer in the Gaslight
mode, with Claudette Colbert being manipulated by husband Don Ameche into thinking she’s down to her last few marbles so he can run off with Hazel Brooks, as gorgeous as she is surly. Claudette’s only hope is the relentless charm offensive mounted by Robert Cummings. Oh for the days when a movie’s main characters could be an imperiled socialite and a globe-trotting adventurer. Sleep
is Sirk at his best, a film that’s all surface pleasures and no less an achievement because of them. It was the perfect ending to our California swing.
Noir City runs through this Sunday at the Castro. May the blessings of Edward James Olmos be with you all.