New Orleans Uncensored is a rather inauspicious but quirky start to what has become the New Orleans Film Festival's oldies-but-goodies weekday series. Last year's programming was all film noir; this year's series starts with the quasi-noir Uncensored, followed by the Jean-Pierre Melville noir classic Le Cercle Rouge (7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 13, Canal Place), the Jayne Mansfield B-movie The Burglar (6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 15, Canal Place), the Sergio Leone classic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 15, Prytania), and La Verite (7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16, Prytania).
Grover Crisp, who oversees film restoration for Sony Pictures (including its Columbia Pictures vault) and has brought films such as Easy Rider, Walk on the Wild Side and Suddenly, Last Summer to the festival, brings the more obscure New Orleans Uncensored this year. Considered by many to be Columbia's answer to Warner's New York Confidential, this 1955 oddity is a mix of crime drama and civic message. (New Orleans was the second-busiest port at the time, behind New York City.) Employing several New Orleans city officials as cast members, New Orleans Uncensored tells a clumsy tale of corruption on the city's docks. With its somber, dated voice-over narrative, stilted acting and pedestrian storyline, this 1955 film has its own B-movie charm.
It was directed by William Castle, who made a name for himself with over-hyped horror flicks during the same decade. Favoring gimmickry over artistry, Castle was known for pulling promotional stunts for his films: taking out insurance policies for faint-of-heart movie-goers for 1958's The Macabre, installing vibrating devices underneath random seats in moviehouses to hype 1959's The Tingler, and providing special viewing glasses for the optical effects in 1960's 13 Ghosts.
New Orleans Uncensored (aka Riot on Pier 6) features no such apparent hyping techniques and maybe could have used them, as it explores the story of idealistic longshoreman Dan Corbett (Arthur Franz), who dreams of owning his own modest boat, and the corruption that compromises his professional and romantic lives. Complicating matters is his fondness for blond temptress Alma (Helene Stanton) and her sometime lover, crime boss "Zero" Saxon (personal favorite Michael Ansara). Knowing that he needs dough to restore the broken-down ship he's purchased, Dan tries to work the "angles" on the New Orleans docks without getting too dirty. He quickly befriends Zero's foreman Joe Reilly (William Henry) and his wife, Marie (Beverly Garland), but quickly realizes Joe isn't nearly as honest as he used to be. Joe tries to fly straight again and pays a heavy price, and it's up to Dan to try to clean things up from the inside out.
And that is just about it -- On the Waterfront this ain't -- but that's not to say New Orleans Uncensored is without its charms. Old-time New Orleanian politicos have to love the lineup of officials hired on to play roles fictional and real: Al Chittenden, president of the General Longshore Workers, Local 1418 ILA; Joseph L. Scheuring, Superintendent of Police; Victor Schiro, Senior Councilman; Howard L. Dey, Fire Chief; Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Walter B. Hamlin (as Wayne Brandon); and U.S. Sen. Allen J. Ellender, who introduces the film. Legendary New Orleans bantamweight Pete Herman appears in an unflattering cameo.
The local references are many and varied, marked by some very punchy dialogue that sounds like knock-off noir. Dan and Alma meet at a longshoreman's picnic after a wharf rat promises him, "There's no cooler spot in town than Pontchartrain Beach on a Sunday afternoon!" (Sample exchange, in the arcade as Dan cozies up behind Alma: "Well, you're different!" "So are you -- in all the right places." "Don't skid while going around the curves!")
Later, when Alma shows Dan the sights, they wind up at Cafe Du Monde, where Marie tells Dan, "Everyone at one time or another comes to Cafe Du Monde. It's a way of saying goodnight." And Marie and her ex-boxer brother Scrappy (Stacy Harris, who also appeared in 1958's New Orleans After Dark) show Dan the French Quarter in a montage that recalls some of the city's great old neon-lit nightspots: Diamond Jim Moran's, the Moulin Rouge, Sho'bar, Club Slipper and so on. (The stars of such scenes, and perhaps the whole movie, are the two women's cleavage-crazy cocktail dresses.)
The film also features a young, handsome and tanned Ed Nelson as a frustrated dock worker who's seen more than he likes and is caught between loyalties -- a common theme here. And considering the acting bar set by the "stars," the other locals hold up their end well enough. Chittenden is particularly amusing during a heated exchange with a union boss, in which he cuts off the boss prematurely to deliver a line in his thick New Orleans accent.
Far from a classic, New Orleans Uncensored provides a nostalgic look at both New Orleans and B-movie kitsch. Corruption rarely looked so silly.
- No cooler spot: Arthur Franz, Helene Stanton and Michael Granger in a scene at the old Pontchartrain Beach arcade in the 1955 B-movie, New Orleans Uncensored.