Noir series "Going South" finds dark stories under sunny skies
FILM Traditional noir cinema is like a whirlpool (and there is, in fact, a 1949 noir titled Whirlpool): its protagonists are haplessly sucked into a vortex of escalating, devouring peril against which their struggles are likely to be futile. Violence, deceit, perversity, love gone wrong, vengeance, and insanity envelop the good and the weak, the haunted and proud alike.The familiar noir setting is that of the bustling city turned malevolent and strange, suddenly underpopulated streets fraught with danger in an unending night of guns, dames, and double crosses. But the open road is equally a noir landscape, exchanging the maze of urban entrapment for flights that seek rescue from dire straits but instead only dig deeper into trouble with each incriminating mile. Loss of control and comfort is the noir hero's inevitable slippery slope; he (or the occasional she) is increasingly at the mercy of cruel fate, unrelenting pursuit, bad judgment, and/or unforgiving alien surroundings.
The Pacific Film Archive July series "Going South: American Noir in Mexico" explores one such manifestation of the traveler becoming "lost" in ways no AAA map can help. The eight vintage black and white features in curator Steve Seid's program trace Yank protagonists' odysseys southward, often on the lam or otherwise under duress. Some never actually make it to Mexico, or just to those border towns fabled for lawlessness and licentiousness (if largely because northern money, cultural ignorance, and thrill-seeking encouraged criminal predation).
Those who do make it find no comfort in a strange land: the stark desert, tourist traps, and insinuating locals with their maddening foreign tongue (the titular villain from 1953's The Hitch-Hiker keeps expressing exasperation that Mexicans insist on speaking "Mexican") provide no hiding place from their demons.
No less than three features star the inimitable sloe-eyed Robert Mitchum, a man who always seemed like he'd have a few Tijuana stories unfit for family consumption. Two by Mia's dad John Farrow (1950's Where Danger Lives and the next year's His Kind of Woman), as well as Jacques Tourneur's 1947 noir classic Out of the Past, find his variably innocent heroes drawn like flies into ornate sticky webs with an alluring brunette at their center. If Danger and Past prove her deadlier than the male, Woman's lighter tone allows a tropical resort near Santa Rosalita to parody den-of-thieves exoticism. In it, Jane Russell gets to be one dame who's hard-boiled on the outside but soft on the in, as opposed to vice versa.
Mexico is likewise just the end point of thorny chases — after stolen loot or lying tail, respectively — in Phil Karlson's excellent 1952 Kansas City Confidential and Anthony Mann's cheesy Blue Angel (1930) update The Great Flamarion (1945) (with Erich von Stroheim as a grandiose vaudeville sharpshooter). But it's central to the series' three most potent entries, which also notably offer more complex takes on the relationship between our perennially poorer neighbor and imposing Gringolandia.
If you haven't seen Orson Welles' 1958 Touch of Evil — either in its original studio cut or drastically different 1998 Walter Murch reconstruction of the director's original intent — you need to, because it's a masterpiece of noir, exploitation, irony, and stylistic delirium. When Charlton Heston's unlikely spray-tanned Mexican narcotics agent marries very blonde, "pure" (and racist) gringa Janet Leigh, their honeymoon becomes a grotesque nightmare of border-straddling sleaze, though the Spanish-speaking miscreants are just pawns in the hands of Yankee pros — especially Welles' own Jabba the Hutt-like police captain.
Much lesser-known are two other films by actors behind the camera. Ida Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker finds two average American Joes on a Baja fishing trip kidnapped by a serial-murdering psycho who forces them deep into desolate foreign terrain. It's the keen eye of locals rather than our desperate heroes' resourcefulness that might ultimately save them from the maniac's itchy trigger finger. Spare, tense and realistic, it's contrasted by Robert Montgomery's 1947 Ride the Pink Horse, a sort of noir-fever-dream spin on Under the Volcano (1984) in which the director stars as a war-veteran tough guy unraveling from sleep deprivation and general dislocation on a revenge mission in a fictitious border town. Full of phony ethnic exoticism and stereotypes, it nonetheless offers hope of salvation solely from kindly Spanish-speaking locals, notably a teenage girl (pigtailed Wanda Hendrix) who can see his imminent death in our gruff hero's eyes.
"Go on, beat it. Scrambo!" he barks at her — a good line to be sure, though none can beat Out of the Past's (false, it turns out) koan "A dame with a rod is like a guy with a knitting needle."
GOING SOUTH: AMERICAN NOIR IN MEXICO
July 1–29, $5.50–$9.50
Pacific Film Archive
2575 Bancroft, Berk.