I always look forward to the film noir festival at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre. This year’s finale on Sunday night featured the eloquent, ever-youthful Marsha Hunt (who, incredibly, is 94) talking about her career after watching a film she made in 1949 and never saw before: Mary Ryan, Detective. It’s not a rediscovered classic, but a well-made Columbia B movie about a female cop who goes undercover to bust a stolen-jewelry racket. Marsha was amused and impressed with her own abilities on screen, from removing a bullet from a colleague’s wounded arm to viciously slapping a night watchman at a fur storage loft, in order to convince her thuggish colleagues that she’s really one of them.
Hunt had recently made her stage debut (on Broadway, no less) when she accepted this brief film assignment; that, and the lack of notable costars, may explain why it has receded in her memory. For diehard buffs like me, and a number of friends who attended the screening, it’s always fun to discover a movie you know nothing about that turns out to be brisk (a mere 68 minutes), diverting, and peppered with familiar faces (John Litel, Harry Shannon, Bill Phillips and such unbilled players as John Dehner, Ben Welden, Chester Clute, Arthur Space, Pierre Watkin, and the ubiquitous Bess Flowers). Written by B movie veteran George Bricker and Harry Fried (who was later story editor on TV’s The Untouchables) and directed by Abby Berlin (a former assistant director at Columbia who cut his teeth on the Blondie series and went on to make scores of filmed TV episodes), Mary Ryan, Detective only turned up on the giant Egyptian screen because Sony’s proactive preservation guru Grover Crisp told Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode, who program the Noir City series, that he’d just restored the film in 35mm.
That’s the beauty of this annual festival, hosted by the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre, and now in its 14th year: it provides a showcase for such rarities, and if some of them don’t precisely fit the definition of film noir, so be it. Where else could you see a brand-new print of Slaughter on Tenth Avenue just struck by Universal with its costar, Julie Adams, in person, or a copy of Don Siegel’s Private Hell 36 with Ida Lupino and Howard Duff, loaned for the occasion by the British Film Institute? Another pristine new print, of the minor gem Three Strangers, starring Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Geraldine Fitzgerald, was funded by the Film Noir Foundation, which presents the series and actively supports preservation of these pictures. (The Noir City Festival originates every January at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, and has spawned several offshoots including a Palm Springs version in late May.)
The ranks of actors, writers, directors and producers who made these movies have thinned over those fourteen years, which makes a personal appearance today all the more special. Marsha Hunt is seemingly ageless, a gracious and well-spoken woman who’s always interesting to hear. She held the audience spellbound as she set up the second half of Sunday’s double feature, the MGM B movie Kid Glove Killer (1942), which marked director Fred Zinnemann’s feature debut. On the first day of shooting, she recalled, the soft-spoken Austrian immigrant gathered the entire cast and crew and explained that while he had carefully prepared himself, he understood that he was a novice in the midst of experienced professionals and welcomed their input and ideas. The actress had never witnessed such a speech before, and reckoned that the crew would have killed for him.
Marsha is quite glamorous in Kid Glove Killer, working with two leading men, Van Heflin and Lee Bowman…but she’s even more impressive today. A team of admirers has been working on a documentary about her called Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity. If you’d like to read more about their efforts, and possibly contribute to their fund-raising campaign, click HERE.
As always, I can’t wait to see what Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode cook up for their 15th series next spring.