Noir City 2008

Max Goldberg January 24, 2008

The experts typically close the classic era of film noir with the 1958 release of Orson Welles’s pitch-black chronicle of obsessive police work, “Touch of Evil.” Fifty years later, one of the best reviewed American films of 2007 was an exhaustive catalog of … obsessive police work. Post-noir is an even looser designator than its notoriously elusive antecedent, used to wrangle everything from “Chinatown” to “Basic Instinct” into the genus. The noir strand flourished in 2007, in “Zodiac” of course, but also in “No Country for Old Men,” “There Will be Blood,” “Eastern Promises,” and others. It makes more than a little sense considering the popular sociological explanation for the initial explosion of dark corners and double-crosses: the fruits of a messy war’s psychic damages, of violence spilling through the cracks of a country’s plaintive façade.

“Zodiac” is probably the closest to the classic examples of noir for its outright preoccupation with crime and punishment, stuffy locations (the newsroom, police headquarters, cramped apartments), and, not insignificantly, a San Francisco setting. It’s a special treat of the Noir City San Francisco Film Noir Festival that Eddie Muller and his team of crack programmers can always arrange for at least one double-bill of San Francisco noir (this year “D.O.A.” and “The Story of Molly X”), the city’s twisty hills and foggy ambience suggestive of the pseudo-genre’s preference for lucid-dream chiaroscuro, echoing voice-overs, and ruinous moral plays.

This year’s festival is the sixth such production of the Film Noir Foundation, an organization which founder Eddie Muller once described to me as a “lobbying group for noir” for its manifold approach to preserving the legacy of a body of work largely disregarded in its own time. Noir City 6 has the usual spread of special guests, rare titles, and newly struck prints across ten nights of double-features. Plenty of notable tidbits for the hardcore, in other words, and for everyone else a chance at the kind of immersion long underlying noir appreciation. Film noir first entered the lexicon, after all, when French critics watched several years worth of dark American crime dramas held back from import during the Second World War en masse. Since then, noir has become one of the most robust branches of film scholarship, with innumerable critics doing the hard, argumentative work of carving out definitions, variations, and origins. Most of this work is done from a position of unbridled enthusiasm, the kind of hungry film spectatorship so heartily encouraged by Noir City’s concentrated embarrassment of riches.

For those novices looking to go beyond the iconography of rainy streets, femme fatales, and hard lighting, the festival’s programmers have lined up several potent examples of “pure” noir. Noir’s boundaries are porous, and any discussion of what makes the grade has to be academic since it wasn’t a production genre like science-fiction or the western — we talk of noir as a virus, with the ability to infect a domestic melodrama (opening night selection “The Hard Way”), or, strangely enough, a period picture about the French Revolution (“Reign of Terror”), but these are outliers. In films like “Gun Crazy,” “D.O.A.,” “Night and the City,” and “Roadhouse” we come to the coal-black heart of the noir tendency, films so far gone into the dark that they seem subject to a completely separate set of fantastic rules for style and narration than the typical Hollywood picture of the era.

In “Gun Crazy,” for example, the genius B-director Joseph Lewis loads the crime picture’s seamiest elements onto the back of one fragile ego, an alienated bundle of nerves with a taste for guns named Bart (John Dahl). Among its many arch stylistic flourishes, “Gun Crazy” features a three-and-a-half minute take shot from the backseat of a getaway car, imbuing a decisive moment of violence with the stab of reality and the weirdly muted void of its aftermath. Thrillingly elliptical (thanks, one imagines, to an uncredited script by Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted screenwriter who’s the toast of the double-feature on January 27th) and shaped in dynamic deep-focus, “Gun Crazy” manages the neat trick of being silly fun at the same time that it’s deeply sensitive to the rules of the game.

Also made in 1950 (in the thick of what filmmaker-critic Paul Schrader memorably described as noir’s period of “psychotic action and suicidal impulse”), Rudolph Maté‘s “D.O.A.” is another fine example of the bracing liberties taken with noir, evident in both master cinematographer Ernest Laszlo’s unhinged shadow-play and camera movements, as well as the ludicrously self-aware nature of the narration — the voice-over of a John Doe (the reliably sweaty Edmond O’Brien) who stumbles into a police station to report his own murder. For those interested in the histories of émigré Hollywood directors, Maté‘s path has to be one of the most circuitous — from acting as cinematographer on a pair of Carl Theodor Dreyer classics (“Vampyr,” “The Passion of Joan of Arc”) to directing the likes of “The Rawhide Years.” “D.O.A.” and “Gun Crazy” are firmly in the tradition of whacked out B-movies, but the noir impulse also touched classier studio fare. Both Jules Dassin’s “Night and the City” and Frank Borzage’s “Moonrise,” for example, access the same creeping darkness as the Lewis and Maté pictures, but with a comparatively quiet, elegant touch.

As always with Noir City, the festival is an opportunity to appreciate not just the films themselves, but the collaborative talent involved in their productions. As Schrader points out in his essential “Notes on Film Noir” essay, “Film noir seemed to bring out the best in everyone: directors cameramen, screenwriters, actors. Again and again, a film noir will make the high point on an artist’s career graph.” In this sense, many film noirs are exemplary of what the French critic André Bazin coined the “genius of the system.” It’s not merely an academic point, as many real contributors remain neglected even as the stock of their films rises. Andrew Sarris and other auteurists resuscitated the reputations of unheralded American directors, but the more blue-collar contributions of screenwriters, cinematographers, and character actors remain woefully undervalued.

Many of these talents aren’t around any more, though Muller and company tracked down forgotten starlet Joan Leslie to appear along with opening night selection of “Repeat Performance” and “The Hard Way.” I haven’t seen the first, but “The Hard Way” is a vintage Warner Bros. malevolent melodrama, and ought to keep fans of “Mildred Pierce” and “All About Eve” satiated with a seething performance by Ida Lupino, one of the hardest-edged actresses in noir (she happily appears in two other Noir City selections: “Woman in Hiding” and “Roadhouse”) and probably the only one cheeky enough to actually direct the things — “The Hitch-Hiker” and “The Bigamist” are inherently interesting specimens for their rare female authorship.

Two natural selections for actor tributes go to “tough guy” Charles McGraw and the eternally wounded Richard Widmark. McGraw, the subject of a recent biographer by Film Noir Foundation board member Alan Rode, brought an unpredictable, genuinely unsettling air of menace to his roles. While McGraw doesn’t have much range, he’s brutally effective — like Lee Marvin, his mug makes it hard to differentiate whether he’s a criminal heavy or a gruff detective, which is to say he’s a natural agent of noir’s moral confusions. Widmark, on the other hand, is a very modern actor, suggesting layers of foundering pathology in his simmering, sweaty-palmed performance style. In both “Roadhouse” and “Night and the City” he strikes the same notes of contemplative danger that Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino would take up a generation later.

And there are many more of the faces which help constitute noir’s landscape: Edward G. Robinson (“Night Has 1000 Eyes”), Edmond O’Brien (“D.O.A.”), Evelyn Keyes (“The Prowler,” “The Face Behind the Mask”), Gene Tierney (“Night and the City”), Van Heflin (“The Prowler”), Ella Raines (“The Suspect”) Ralph Meeker (“Jeopardy”), Sidney Greenstreet (“Conflict”), and the list goes on. Peter Lorre turns up with one of his juiciest Hollywood roles in “The Face Behind the Mask” (two words: disfiguring accident), providing a direct link with the German Expressionist movement frequently cited as laying the stylistic groundwork for noir’s obsessive preference for verticality and shadows (among other German films, Lorre starred as the child murderer in Fritz Lang’s crucial 1931 crime drama, “M”).

There are also plenty of opportunities to appreciate the talent behind the camera, from the surprising stylistic gambits of relatively unknown directors like John Farrow (“Night Has 1000 Eyes”) and John Brahm (“Hangover Square”) to the assured mechanics of genre masters like Robert Siodmak (“The Suspect”) and Dassin (“Night and the City”). The double-feature billed as a tribute to Charles McGraw is a bit tricky in this respect, since both films (“Reign of Terror” and “Border Incident”) also boast the venerable noir double-team of Anthony Mann’s direction and John Alton’s cinematography. If Alton can’t be singled out for inventing noir’s visual vernacular, he comes as close to perfecting it as anyone. Mann, who was a genre-chameleon, brings his typically unremitting violence to both pictures. “Border Incident,” in particular, contains some of the most unresolved scenes of brutality in any social problem picture, making something like “The Grapes of Wrath” look idyllic by comparison.

Half of Noir City’s selections aren’t available on DVD, and among this lot “The Prowler” is of special note. Castro audiences will be treated to a “re-premiere” of the film thanks to a restoration the Film Noir Foundation coordinated with UCLA’s prestigious Film and Television Archive (the same organization responsible for the luminous new prints of Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep”). This has hardly been an overnight process — when I spoke to Muller last year, he expressed frustration about having located all the necessary materials and contacts to restore “The Prowler” but still coming up short on funds (around $40,000 for this particular film). It’s a major victory for the Film Noir Foundation, and a tangible gain from the symbolic show of support which comes with ten nights of a packed house at the Castro. The studios have begun to take notice (20th Century Fox is sponsoring the “Hangover Square”/“Dangerous Crossing” bill), but despite the recent proliferation of noir DVDS, there are many other films still languishing in studio vaults — and as with the talent, they won’t wait forever.

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