Noir City at SIFF – “Loophole” and Some Final Thoughts
On Thursday, February 17th, 2011, I had the good fortune of attending the Seattle International Film Festival’s (SIFF) closing night of its “Noir City” series. This was a week-long series highlighting a number of great film noir movies, some of which were considered lost or unattainable. This year’s theme was “Who’s Crazy Now?”, so the films selected had a theme involving a main character either going insane or being considered insane by their peers. From Marilyn Monroe’s crazy babysitter in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) to Ronald Colman’s disturbed actor in A Double Life (1947), many of the films dealt with people with deep psychological issues. The film I had the pleasure of seeing closing night was Loophole (1954), directed by Harold D. Schuster—one of the rarest film noirs. So rare is the film, that not only is it not available on DVD, the print we watched is the only available print in existence. It was the first of a double feature, playing ahead of Crashout (1955).
Of all the films I’ve seen from this series, Loophole would probably be the most fun. The film is not as heavy as the others; it doesn’t contain the cynicism or edge that the other films had, and it is certainly not as dark, both figuratively and literally. The film is a lot brighter visually, takes place mostly during the day and in many outdoor locations, and is a lot funnier than your normal film noir. This has to do with the time in which it was made. Eddie Muller, part of the Film Noir Foundation that restored the film (and who is known as the “Czar of Noir”), explained that in the mid-to-late fifties, films started to move away from the style of the forties. Visually, the look was no longer as angular as before, and the effects of shadows became less and less apparent. This was due to the rise of television. With film being made to look so dark, when played on a television set, the shadows would literally “bleed” all over the screen, causing the viewer to see a picture that was almost completely black. As a result, many production heads ordered their filmmakers to make their movies brighter, taking away the beautiful effects of darkness. This film would be one of those directly affected.
But that isn’t to say that the film suffers because its style is affected; quite the opposite, in fact. This is a highly enjoyable film about one man mistakenly identified as a criminal and the doggedly unrelenting pursuit of a lawman determined to capture him. The film stars Barry Sullivan as Mike Donovan, a mild-mannered and reserved bank clerk. One day, a group of bank examiners arrive to check each teller’s stations and to see that everything is running appropriately. Unfortunately, these men are unaware that an extra person has joined their ranks: Herman Tate (Don Beddoe), a teller himself, with a dirty plan up his sleeve. Posing as an examiner, Tate, along with his girlfriend Vera (Mary Beth Hughes), distract Mike and rob him of nearly $50,000. Now, I actually worked as a bank teller myself once upon a time, and I was laughing out loud at the sheer implausibility of this heist. There is absolutely no way Tate and Vera would have been able to get away with that amount of money in the way that they did, but that’s the logic of the movies for you. Mike, once realizing his outage, understandably finds himself not knowing what to do. Urged and supported by his wife Ruthie (Dorothy Malone), Mike explains to his boss what had happened. While everyone that Mike knows likes him and knows he’s not a bad a person, there are very few clues that point anywhere else, and very quickly suspicions point toward Mike as the culprit.
Mike soon becomes the main suspect of the robbery, but with no evidence proving that he actually did it, no charges are filed. But that doesn’t stop lawman Gus Slavin (Charles McGraw) from being completely convinced of his guilt. Charles McGraw completely steals the movie as the unrelenting, gravely voiced investigator sent by the bank’s bonding company to look into Mike and make sure he is telling the truth. He is a person that believes people are guilty until proven innocent. Slavin is one of those great movie characters that you love to hate—he’s so convinced that Mike is the culprit that no kind of explanation or even common sense will sway him. Even long after Mike is considered innocent by authorities and is cleared of any wrongdoing, Slavin continues to hound him to the point of extreme annoyance. It seems Slavin would make it his own personal mission to catch Mike red-handed, even going to the point of making his life miserable until he confesses. After being let go from the bank, Mike ends up taking small time jobs in different locations, but is frequently fired because Slavin, in just a foul move, would tell Mike’s bosses that he is a criminal. If there is a way to describe Slavin, it is that he is one downright dirty old bastard. The rest of the film unfolds much in a Hitchcockian fashion, with Mike both trying to convince Slavin and the police that he is the wrong man, to find the real criminals in Tate and Vera, and to reclaim the missing money before it’s too late.
Loophole an entertaining film, a true pleasure to watch. What made it even more enjoyable was the experience of watching it with an audience at the SIFF Cinema. Nothing beats laughing along with your peers to a film, and there were many times when that happened here. A particular moment, when Slavin finally gets his comeuppance, had the crowd hooting and hollering and applauding loudly. I’m glad that I had an opportunity to be a part of it. A lot of credit has to be given to SIFF for holding this series, and to the Film Noir Foundation for the work they did in restoring the film. If it weren’t for either of them, we would not have been able to see this gem of a movie, as it is not available anywhere else. Film noir is a genre that has ingrained itself in the movies; it is has not died at all, but has only adapted itself to the changing times. Movies today continually reach back and reference those made in the past; what is made now has its origins in those that had been made before. What’s great about Noir City is that it allows us to experience films that we may have never heard about, but have been directly influenced and moved by. One can clearly see the lines that connect the obsessive actor in A Double Life to the obsessive dancer in Black Swan (2010), made sixty-three years later.
During his introduction to the film, Eddie Muller said something that has stuck with me. He said that “not only should we preserve movies, but we should preserve audiences as well.” This is a good point, and I was fascinated to learn that he visited young people at local Seattle schools, chatting movies with them and letting them know of these older films. There is a treasure trove of great movies out there, in particular film noirs, that are just waiting to be seen by a younger generation. I think it is completely necessary to make people aware of what is out there, to at least know of the past in order to have a greater appreciation of the present. Hopefully more and more people will look back at film noirs and see how much they have to offer: high entertainment with great style and flair. And with a bit of luck, films like Loophole will have the opportunity to have a second life.