Stony lonesome

'I Wake Up Dreaming' unspools rare, hard-boiled tales

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Purr-ty poison: Ann Sheridan plays a San Francisco chanteuse in 1947's Nora Prentiss.

arts@sfbg.com

FILM Prison should be the most natural setting for film noir, as that's where most of the genre's protagonists are headed (if they don't get bumped off first), and where many of them have already been. But it's had spotty representation onscreen, with time served either skipped over in the narrative (how many pulp fictions start with a hard-luck protagonist just getting out of long-term for what's sure to be short-term freedom?), or dominating entirely.

This spring's edition of "I Wake Up Dreaming," the recurrent Roxie noir showcase programmed by Elliot Lavine, has a number of notable titles dealing with the claustrophobic consequences of crime-not-paying. What's even more notable this time around is the cross-pollination with Lavine's other Roxie perennial, the series of Hollywood "pre-Codes" made in an approximately five-year window between the advent of "talkies" and the 1934 arrival of more rigidly enforced, censorious industry standards toward potentially objectionable content. Their peaks separated by about 15 years, pre-Codes and noirs shared a taste for hard-boiled dialogue and seamy situations, so their programmatic overlapping here feels right.

Two of the strongest entries here were released at least a decade before the arrival of anything that might legitimately be labeled noir. Daintily titled Ladies They Talk About (1933) is a rip-roaring original Women in Prison exploiter, with the inimitable Barbara Stanwyck as a moll who sashays into the hoosegow after enabling a bank stick-up. Getting two-to-five in San Quentin's women's ward, which here is like the world's saltiest sorority, she quickly identifies her allies and enemies while spurning the visits of a childhood pal turned crusading DA (Preston Foster) — when she'd ratted on herself to prove "I'm on the level now" to him, he had the noive to actually charge her with the crime. That bum!

Another enduring star who came in with the sound era, Edward G. Robinson, gets all of Two Seconds (1932) to recall what got him to the electric chair — though that translates into a still-trim 67 minutes' screen time in Mervyn LeRoy's drama. The first half is a gem of snappy patter as the headliner and a terrific Foster play construction-worker roommates — Robinson the penny-pinching plodder, Foster the one always ready to blow his paycheck on booze, broads, and the horses. Yet it's the former who's taken for a chump's ride by dancehall girl Vivienne Osborne, whose personality goes from Jekyll to Hyde the moment she's manipulated him into an unholy matrimony. You can guess what happens — she's already murder just to live with. As a none-too-bright lug who can't get a break, Robinson gets a serious acting workout here, even if the climactic pre-execution Big Speech smacks overmuch of writing for Oscar's sake.

Several rarities that verge on horror come from before and after the semi-official, immediately post-World War II noir era. Miracles for Sale (1939) was the final feature for director Tod Browning of Lon Chaney Sr. and Freaks (1932) fame. It stars Robert Young as a professional "magic" debunker investigating murders connected to an alleged witchcraft circle. Even so, this slick comedy thriller provides scant outlet for Browning's love of the macabre.

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