It was an off-beat night at Noir City with a tribute to Belita, star of the hitherto little-known subgenre of "ice skating noir." Before the films started, Eddie introduced this year's Ms. Noir City, the beautiful Madeline Brown, decked out in her lovely outfit from the festival poster. She revealed the thing that, according to Eddie, clinched this year's title for her: a left shoulder tattoo that says "Mom and Dad." As he explained, Noir City is all about "family values."
The double bill started with SUSPENSE, the big budget Monogram/King Brothers attempt at one-upping Fox's Sonja Henie with a noir twist. I'm not sure which production meetings determined that there was an untapped target audience ripe for a combined ice skating/Latin music/crime drama extravaganza, but that's what they delivered. Small-time hood Barry Sullivan, trying to escape his suspicious past back east, gets his bravado across with impresario Albert Dekker, who gives him a job selling peanuts. Sullivan warms to the star of the ice show, Belita, who turns out to be married to the boss; but hey, this is noir, so what's stopping them from taking over the whole operation? The intrepid main characters scheme together and survive a series of dramatic incidents including a death-defying skating stunt through a knife-laden hoop, an on-ice conga interlude, and even an avalanche, but hell hath no fury like a scorned Bonita Granville. Maybe he should have stuck to selling peanuts.
The Castro audience, primed for a weird show by Eddie's enthusiastic intro, enjoyed this truly bizarre grab-bag of mid-'40s entertainment. The top-notch production values for the ice show numbers were particularly appreciated, with applause at the end of each routine.
The second film was THE GANGSTER, with Belita now in a straight supporting role, sans ice skates. Sullivan stars again as a gangland figure, this time as a well-connected tough running a numbers game. While it isn't ice-skating noir, this one does qualify as "ice cream parlor noir," as the action and characters all center around the soda store where Sullivan conducts his business. A near-endless parade of familiar character faces entertained the noir-savvy audience, with applause for cameo appearances by Elisha Cook and Shelley Winters. Akim Tamiroff, Harry Morgan, John Ireland, and Virginia Christine were just a few more of the recognizable supporting players. One has to wonder, though, about the efficiency of any criminal organization where Charles McGraw is relegated to doing dirty work for Sheldon Leonard--a role reversal there would surely result in a more ruthless and effective racket.