B noir in the Mission: Elliot Lavine offers up Belita and Barry Sullivan in "Suspense" in his noir series.

Elliot Lavine: 'I Wake Up Dreaming'

Sura Wood May 11, 2009

Elliot Lavine has been a fixture on the Bay Area film scene since moving from Detroit to San Francisco in 1975. A perk of going to the Roxie during his tenure as program director at the no-frills institution (1990-2003), was running into Lavine, whose engaging conversation, film literacy and dry wit were worth the price of admission. When not manning the concession stand with elan, Lavine helped transform the venue into a destination for hardcore film noir fans. Though he left the theater to teach film studies at Stanford University, SF State and UC Berkeley, he has returned to his old stomping grounds to guest curate "I Wake Up Dreaming: The Haunted World of the B Film Noir." The program of 28 obscure, bona fide film noir that Lavine affectionately describes as "cheap, lowdown and tawdry," coincides with the underground publication of his book of the same name. The series, which includes Blind Alley, one of two noir shorts that marked the beginning and end of Lavine’s foray into filmmaking, runs May 15-28, with a pre-opening bash on May 14.

SF360: You have a long history with the Roxie. What was it like programming the theater during the period you were there?

Elliot Lavine: The ’90s was a tremendously exciting time at the Roxie. We were constantly being bombarded with great new films to play, and, despite the presence of home video and cable TV, we could still consistently pack the place with older films. Revivals of certain classics and obscurities—especially film noir and pre-code—managed to motivate people to pry themselves out of their living rooms and into movie theaters on a pretty regular basis. Plus the Roxie’s distribution arm was extremely active during this time with films like Red Rock West, Kurt and Courtney, Man Bites Dog, and that made the theater’s overall presence a formidable one.

SF360: Has the landscape changed for repertory theaters?

Lavine: Most definitely. With fewer and fewer theaters willing to absorb the cost of multiple short-term dates, staying home with Netflix or cable has become the dominant strain for watching older films. And you can’t really blame the theaters; it simply doesn’t make economic sense to go to the trouble and expense to book these films if people aren’t willing to make the effort to come out for them. It’s a sad situation, but a product of our constantly changing world.

SF360: How did you get into film programming? Were you one of those kids who spent hours in the movie theater?

Lavine: Well yes, I did spend an awful lot of time in movie theaters as a kid. But I never actively thought about film programming as a career until I actually started doing it, which wasn’t until I was in my early 40s. I had spent most of the late ’70s and through the ’80s trying to forge a career making films and found myself one day staring down at the fact that it simply wasn’t going to happen. At least not in the way I had imagined it. A friend of mine, who worked at the Roxie at the time, put me in touch with the owner, Bill Banning, who was looking for someone to write program notes for the theater’s calendars. It was a little like The Man who Came to Dinner before anyone knew it, I was programming films that drew big crowds and Bill was happy to let me continue on in that capacity. It was just one of those fortuitous things, I guess.

SF360: Do you think the San Francisco movie audience has changed much over the years?

Lavine: I think movie audiences everywhere have changed quite a bit, not just here in San Francisco. People who are serious about their movies seem to prefer the comfort of their own living rooms, mainly in an attempt to avoid the nitwits who carry on conversations with their companions, talk on their cell-phones and consume full-course meals in the theater. And who can blame them? I don’t go that often myself. It’s too annoying. And the real culprits, to me at least, are the studios that keep cranking out mediocre corporate crap, only to rush it out onto DVD three months later. It’s pretty hard to get very excited about new films these days; they either pander to the car-crash crowd or try to delude audiences into thinking they’re seeing something "independent" and "quirky." It seems that "independent" and "quirky" have come to be synonymous with "visually bland" and "cinematically bereft."

SF360: What set of criteria did you use to program this noir festival and where did you find the films?

Lavine: Since film noir is dangerously close to becoming over-exploited (or at least over saturated), it seemed to me that in order to justify coming back to do a program like this, it would have to have an unusual hook. Personally, I’ve always preferred the ‘B’ films to the so-called ‘A’ films primarily because of the inherent anarchistic nature of them. ‘A’ films, regardless how well made or entertaining, seem to lack the stylistic verve and gritty energy of their lower-rent stepsisters and brothers. So that became my focus: an assortment of lesser-known, low-budget ‘B’ noirs that audiences might not be quite as familiar with. Finding the films represented another problem. Many of the titles we’re playing simply aren’t available through the studios. Fortunately I’ve made a number of friends who collect 16mm prints of these hard-to-find films and they have graciously consented to allow us to use them.

SF360: Lawrence Tierney was one of meanest, most pathological bad guys in noir. What do you know about the actor and his career?

Lavine: Tierney’s real life mirrored his screen life pretty closely. His first big break in Hollywood was starring as the legendary John Dillinger in the 1945 Monogram B picture Dillinger, which wound up being quite a sensation. One of the great ironies is that Tierney, who was in and out of trouble with the law most of his life, had a rap sheet considerably longer than the famed gangster he portrayed. While it certainly added to the allure of his persona, it unquestionably kept him from becoming a major star, which he probably could have done if not for the burden of lawlessness hovering over him. I think it’s safe to say, however, that his greatest cinematic moments lie in the world of the B noir: The Devil Thumbs a Ride, Dillinger, *The Hoodlum*—these films are bona fide noir classics.

SF360: Whatever happened to Marie Windsor? Is No Man’s Woman your favorite film of hers?

Lavine: Marie Windsor passed away some eight or nine years ago. She was absolutely terrific in just about everything—-the true ‘Queen of the B’s.’ My favorite of her films is Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. When you’re given the opportunity to spout dialogue written by Jim Thompson—the most noir of the paperback pulpsters—you can’t help but attain greatness. I love No Man’s Woman, too. It’s a mind-bending performance and enormously entertaining in a lowdown, tawdry way.

SF360: How is your program different from Eddie Muller’s Noir City?

Lavine: I guess the greatest difference lies in the venue itself. The Roxie has a certain distinctive quality that lends itself quite nicely to the dark and dingy nature of noir as opposed to the Castro, which has a gaudier, more ostentatious vibe— that and the fact that our show is exclusively about the lower-berth films, the little B pictures that are devoid of glitz and glamour. They put on a terrific show over there at the Castro, but I think what we’re trying to do at the Roxie is a lot closer to the dark soul of film noir.

SF360: What are your favorites on the program?

Lavine: In truth, I love them all, but if I had to single out a handful I’d go with both of the Lawrence Tierney films—The Devil Thumbs a Ride and The Hoodlum; they’re really great and shouldn’t be missed under any circumstances. The same is true for The Guilty, which is an extremely rare poverty row film adapted from a story by Cornell Woolrich. It’s safe to say that this unpretentious little gem is darker than virtually anything that ever came out of the big studios at that time. I also love Railroaded, an early Anthony Mann film made for PRC (the lowliest of the poverty row studios) that pulls no punches; it’s truly remarkable in every sense of the word. We have several films on the program that were photographed by John Alton, my absolute favorite noir cinematographer, and they are also amongst my favorites: Raw Deal, Hollow Triumph, Canon City, The Pretender and Witness to Murder are all tremendous films, made that much more so because of Alton’s contributions. Another standout is The Last Crooked Mile, which is the other great Ann Savage B noir. And I can’t leave out The Burglar, which was based on a novel by David Goodis, one of the darkest and most haunted writers of the ’40s and ’50s. It’s one of the more twisted films on the program and I can guarantee that you’ve never seen anything like it! The same can be said for Shack out on 101, a thoroughly bizarre cold war noir that will definitely leave you scratching your head.

SF360: Why did you write the book?

Lavine: To be fair, I didn’t actually write the book. I assembled it and manipulated the contents in order to get it to do what I wanted it to do. I became fascinated with the movie blurbs in TV Guide magazine when I was a kid and that fascination never left me. They had the oddest way of describing what a film or a television episode was about—very macabre and disturbing prose. A perfect example of this would be their description of the 1961 B picture Tormented: ‘A girl’s body is found floating in the surf.’ That’s really cold, kind of like a rough-hewn subterranean haiku. Cold, but oddly compelling in a way that might be best described as über noir. A number of years ago I began gathering and collecting hundreds of TV Guides from the 1950s and early 60s and found that the cumulative effect of these blurbs was kind of astonishing, a veritable compendium of doom. So I isolated all the listings for noir films and noir TV shows like Johnny Staccato and Racket Squad, as well as horror and science fiction films, cutting and pasting them together to create one endless night of darkness and doom. I found the effect to be staggering: it represented everything that I had personally come to know and appreciate about film noir, so I decided to assemble it into a book. I think it’s something that hardcore noir fans will find interesting.

SF360: Can you tell about your own foray into filmmaking and what you learned from the experience?

Lavine: When I moved to San Francisco in the mid ’70s, I quickly became obsessed with film noir. Back in Detroit there weren’t any repertory theaters to speak of, so the opportunity to see these films was limited to what you might catch by accident on the late, late show. But San Francisco at that time seemed to have a rep theater on every corner. I found myself inside a movie theater six, seven times a week. Without much of a clue as to how to go about it, I decided (after seeing a double feature of Kiss Me Deadly and The Killing at the Cento Cedar) to make my own noir film. It took about three years to complete my 12-minute film Blind Alley, and it was an incredible experience. (We’ll be playing it at the Roxie on opening night along with Devil Thumbs a Ride and The Guilty). A second short film, The Twisted Corridor, followed a year later, but by then I had expended whatever energy in that area I was capable of expending and there were no more to come. But it was a great adventure, one I wouldn’t trade for anything.

SF360: What films have meant the most to you and why?

Lavine: I suppose noir films like Out of the Past, Detour and Kiss Me Deadly have had a significant impact on me over the years—as well as the films of director Nicholas Ray. Rebel Without a Cause was probably the first film that I connected with emotionally as a kid and it’s as much a part of me as anything could possibly be. His other films, like In a Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground, They Live by Night, Johnny Guitar and Bigger Than Life resonate with a personal dynamic that I find both aesthetically invigorating and spiritually rewarding. But the film that probably means more to me than any other would be Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. From the time I first saw it as a terrified 8 year old, it’s been my personal favorite and several hundred viewings later it remains so.

SF360: Which films do you consider guilty pleasures?

Lavine: Truth be told, I’ve never felt guilty about the pleasures received from watching a film.

SF360: Are there directors whose work you particularly admire?

Lavine: Apart from the aforementioned Nicholas Ray, I would add Jacques Tourneur, Edgar G. Ulmer, Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, Jacques Demy, Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Fuller, Don Siegel, Edward D. Wood, Vincente Minnelli, Francois Truffaut and Jerry Lewis.

SF360: Noir has such an enthusiastic following but there are only so many good films around, right? Do you see its appeal losing steam?

Lavine: Probably, but not anytime soon. I think as long as you can mine the depths of poverty row for lost and forgotten gems, you’ll be able to put on a pretty good show. I’m sure that if this series at the Roxie is successful, I’ll be back doing it again next year.

SF360: Why do you think people get so much vicarious pleasure from watching characters descend into depravity and travel down the road to ruin?

Lavine: I suppose it’s likely that they would rather see these horrible things happen to people other than themselves. I think there’s no underestimating the morbid curiosity of even the most genteel among us. Human nature, I guess.

SF360: If you could program any films you wanted, what six would you put together?

Lavine: Six, huh? Let’s break it into a trio of seemingly unrelated duets:
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956; Don Siegel) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955; Robert Aldrich) are my two favorite cold-war pictures, forever linked in my imagination to create an unspeakably indelible nightmare. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and On Dangerous Ground (1952) are two Nick Ray films that blend so beautifully together that there is never any doubt that you are watching the same genius at work. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967; Jacques Demy) and The Bellboy (1960; Jerry Lewis) consist of my favorite French film and my favorite film that is a favorite of the French, or something like that.

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