The cheapest special effect in the world is having one actor fire a cap gun as another cries, "Ow, ya got me!" Ergo crime did pay, in spades, for Hollywood's "Poverty Row" studios in the disillusioned years between World War II and Eisenhower-era prosperity. Subsequently dubbed "film noir," this period's myriad violent melodramas were cranked out fast, exhibited briefly, then forgotten.
Yet recent years have left very few stones unturned in the quest for buried gems. Back when he was programming at the Roxie Theater, Elliot Lavine did much to foster their cult with retrospectives showcasing both the genre's acknowledged classics and dustiest obscurities. When he left in 2003, noir fans wore mourning black though were consoled by the start of SF's annual Noir City festival that same year.
Still, watching lurid old B-flicks at the funky Roxie had an extra frisson lacking amid the Castro Theater's grandiose respectability. Very good news, then, that Lavine is bringing bad guys (and duplicitous dames) back to Valencia Street with "I Wake Up Dreaming: The Haunted World of the B Film Noir." Its two weeks emphasize noir's lesser-sung efforts from the cinematic sweatshops of Monogram, PRC, Eagle Lion, and other economy-class companies where production values were low and the hard-boiled sleaze factor was often cranked high to compensate. Many of the 29 features haven't been seen theatrically for decades, and few are available on DVD.
On Poverty Row, young talent proved itself; mainstream luminaries landed there once their box-office clout had expired. Thus velvet-voiced 1930s glamazon Kay Francis briefly descended to Monogram after Warner Bros. dumped her. In Allotment Wives (1946) she's a socialite coolly fronting a polygamy racket targeting returned GI's, while enduring Mildred Pierce-like torments from an ingrate daughter whose every action screams "Mother, slap sense into me." (Oh yes she will.)
Another WB castoff, ingénue Joan Leslie, starred in that year's unique Repeat Performance. She's an actress-turned-murderess who gets her wish to live the last fateful year over again only to watch as the same deadly events unfold, only worse. Having outgrown a famous-juvenile heyday, Bonita Granville was ready to play twins one good, one a "cheap little chiseler" embroiled in a murder mystery in The Guilty (1947). (And to think just months earlier she'd been crushing on Andy Hardy at MGM.)
These programmer factories promoted personalities who only rated bit parts at the majors. Where else could sneering, square-faced Lawrence Tierney's bullying malevolence float entire movies like The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947) and The Hoodlum (1951)? Some noirs risked having no familiar faces at all. The docudrama-style Canon City (1948) uses real locations and (some) real inmates to recreate a Colorado prison break one thwarted, in part, by a gutsy, home-invaded gramma-with-hammer.
While most titles here are known only to the most fanatical buffs, two come with minor cult status already attached. The craziest among fabled screenwriter Ben Hecht's odd few directorial efforts, Specter of the Rose (1946) is an amour very-fou tale set in the ballet world, its prima ballerina imperiled by a dancing partner-spouse who experiences homicidal ideations when not husking heavy mush stuff: "Hug me with your eyes." "I am." "Harder!"
Likewise linguistically challenged in the best possible way is 1955's Shack Out on 101, in which a young Lee Marvin unforgettably limns "Slob," bus boy extraordinaire forever pawing unaroused waitress Terry Moore. Meanwhile, lurking Commies plot to overthrow the American Way of Life, off-ramp greasy spoons included. With its hilariously pissed-off dialogue no obstacle to red-blooded patriotic display, Shack is a Cold War trash classic so plutonium-hot it smokes.
I WAKE UP DREAMING: THE HAUNTED WORLD OF THE B FILM NOIR
May 1428, $10
Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., SF
(415)-863-1087, www.roxie.com