The man who really knows noir Film: George Figgs, the owner of the Orpheum Cinema, loves the B-movie crime genre and is screening a double-feature classic.

January 12, 1998|By Ann Hornaday HTC | Ann Hornaday HTC,SUN FILM CRITIC

Just when "L.A. Confidential," Curtis Hanson's adaptation of James Ellroy's novel, seems on its silky-smooth way to sweeping the Oscars, count on George Figgs to set the record straight about film noir.

Figgs, the owner of the Orpheum Cinema in Fells Point and a self-described "film noir fanatic," has programmed a film that makes Hanson's rouged-up rendition of 1950s Los Angeles look like "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm."

"The Crimson Kimono," a film by the master of pulp violence, Samuel Fuller, is the movie "L.A. Confidential" tries so hard to be. Hard-boiled, lurid and studded with plot curlicues and sexual subtexts, Fuller's 1959 film gives L.A. just the right touch of tropical seaminess and stark menace. What's more, it features a prescient plot element involving bi-racial friendship and romance. It was multicultural before there was the word, with a grace and sophistication we rarely see today.

Glenn Corbett and James Shigeta star as two L.A. detectives solving the murder of a stripper, an investigation that takes the best friends to Little Tokyo and across the path of a beautiful art student (Victoria Shaw). When the two men fall in love with her, issues of loyalty, betrayal and latent racism bubble to the surface. Written, directed and produced by Fuller, "The Crimson Kimono" is a surprisingly perceptive, almost gentle film, which would be followed by the famous rogue's signature -- and edgier -- works: "Underworld U.S.A," "Shock Corridor" and "The Naked Kiss."

Figgs hadn't seen "The Crimson Kimono" for 15 years when he screened a print last week. What struck him upon seeing it again was "that the parallel between it and 'L.A. Confidential' was so strong," he said. "You've got two cops in love with the same woman and the feel of L.A. and its seamy underside." Figgs, who just concluded a run of the neo-noir "Confidential," professes admiration for Hanson's film. "I liked how deeply in cheek its tongue was planted," he said.

As a double feature with "The Crimson Kimono," Figgs will offer "Ruthless," a melodrama directed by another noir master, Edgar G. Ulmer. Just as "The Crimson Kimono" shows Fuller's sensitive side, "Ruthless," which stars the oleaginously sinister Zachary Scott, is a rather high-end effort from a filmmaker associated with such B-movie classics as "Detour" and "Murder Is My Beat." Figgs programmed "Ruthless" "because I love 'Detour,' and I wanted people to see Ulmer's distaff side."

In "Ruthless," Scott plays Horace Vendig, who clawed his way from poverty to the top of the heap through vicious and hurtful social climbing. Ulmer starts his tale at a fancy ball that Vendig throws to announce his retirement, then proceeds to flash back and forth to weave the story of ambition, manipulation and sadistic deceit. Sidney Greenstreet, Martha Vickers and Louis Hayward all show up as Vendig's victims. Released in 1948, "Ruthless" clearly owes a debt to "Citizen Kane," both in form and emotional tone. It would also anticipate such portraits of ambition as "A Place in the Sun" and "The Bad and the Beautiful."

Yet, for all its pretensions, "Ruthless" is still a solid B picture, according to Figgs. "It's so close to being 'A,' " he said, laughing. "They managed to get Sidney Greenstreet and Zachary Scott [best-known as the smooth boyfriend in 'Mildred Pierce']. But the main elements that contribute to its arch B-ness is the way the atmosphere and settings are cartooned. Like in the first scene, when they roll up to the mansion and there are two rows of butlers in the foyer. It could be a cel from a Daffy Duck cartoon, their noses are so tweakable.

"That's the engine that drives their real camp value," Figgs says of his beloved B movies. "They're not appreciated for the way they were made. It's that they are so dead serious and so in earnest and so faux-elegant."

As pure cinema entertainment, nothing can beat seeing "The Crimson Kimono" and "Ruthless" in the Orpheum's cozy, cinephile-friendly environs. What's more, neither of these gems is available on video, so this might be your one and only chance to see them. And just think: The next time "L.A. Confidential" wins an award, you'll be able to say you saw the real thing.

"The Crimson Kimono" and "Ruthless" will play today through Sunday. Figgs will discuss his devotion to noir at a Table of Ten discussion tonight at 7 p.m. at Louie's Bookstore Cafe, 518 N. Charles St.

Film noir duet

What: "The Crimson Kimono" (1959) and "Ruthless" (1948)

Where: Orpheum Cinema, 1724 Thames St., Fells Point

When: Today through Sunday

Tickets: $4.50; $3 matinees

Call: 410-732-4614

Pub Date: 1/12/98

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