Don Siegel's 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' opens Not Necessarily Noir.

Noirish New Lavine Series Hits the Roxie

Sura Wood August 19, 2010

"Not Necessarily Noir" (August 20-September 2)—the cautionary title of the fourth noir-themed event at the Roxie since the theater's former programmer, Elliot Lavine, came out of exile last year—sounds like a preemptive strike, a strategic move to deflect criticism sure to erupt among noir purists, who can be a ferocious lot. "Admittedly, there is some boundary-pushing going on in this series, but I don’t anticipate any rioting," said Lavine in our recent email exchange. "The past few shows have stayed pretty much within the conventional parameters of what we think of when we think of film noir: to wit; black-and-white American crime films made between 1940 and 1960, mainly type B." This time around, though, the dozen double features on tap cross over to include genres not readily identified with noir—sci-fi, horror, westerns—and films made in color from the 1960s through the 90s. When not rifling through movie vaults or chatting up local collectors, Lavine teaches at Stanford, but he took time out of his day to opine in-depth about his upcoming series, the wicked wise guys and femmes fatale we love to hate, as well as the black heart beating, not necessarily humanely, in the heaving bosom of noir.

SF360: Please elaborate on the title….

Elliot Lavine:  I suppose it’s meant to say that there are films that might be noir, could be noir, and maybe we should, at least for two weeks, forget about the rules that govern what we see and how we think about it. Perhaps, it’s time to rewrite the book a little.

SF360: How do these films diverge from the definition of noir and should we care?

Lavine: I no longer try to define noir. I understand that 'classic Noir' has its own fairly rigid set of guidelines (1940-1959, U.S., black-and-white) with set themes that reflect wartime, post-war, and Cold War anxieties. That’s one take. But the majority of the 24 films we’re playing were produced after 1960, a number of them from the '80s and '90s. That by itself will be reason for some people to be skeptical, but I think an even greater number will embrace the inclusion of modern films into the noir conversation and welcome this fusion. Should we care? Your call.

SF360: What has kept audiences hooked?

Lavine: Films about crime and the people who commit crimes, which is what the vast majority of noir films are about, will always fascinate people. Sure, it’s unpleasant, but so is taking a ride on a roller coaster if you have vertigo. It doesn’t stop people from doing it. As long as moviegoers remain curious about how the other half—the wicked and the corrupt—lives, movies about nasty, or at least unfortunate people will continue to share the spotlight. It’s the safest way for most of us to lead a life of high drama without going to the trouble of taking any actual risks. When they’re good, these kinds of films are psychologically and emotionally raw, populated by charismatic movie stars doing things we’d never dream of doing, and they’re dressed up in nice clothes and wrapped in pretty music. Who couldn’t get hooked on that? Once films begin working us over at the subconscious level, we’re goners with no hope of figuring out why and how we’re really affected by them.

SF360: Do you think these films are more popular in times of trouble and deprivation, like the period we’re in now, for instance?

Lavine: When has there ever NOT been a time of trouble and deprivation? Even though the details may differ from generation to generation, life for a great many people is difficult, which probably speaks to the reason why films reflecting the darker aspects of life continue to be popular with audiences. People are either relating specifically to the downward spiral or slumming with idle and perverse curiosity.

SF360: What are the most controversial choices you’ve made?

Lavine: The 1983 remake of Breathless. It was one of the most reviled films ever released. Practically everyone hated it with a deep and seemingly bottomless passion. It was decried as a desecration of the original, an outrageous and unnecessary waste of time and talent. Wow. Anyway, it seems now that the Jim McBride-Richard Gere remake of the Godard trend-setter is the better film after all. Gere was an important actor at the time and Breathless almost upended (his career) single-handedly. Skeptics will simply have to roll the dice and decide for themselves.

Something Wild (August 22 and 23) invites a certain amount of scrutiny in its depiction of a rape victim in a film that makes a lot of people uncomfortable and, of course whenever Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (August 29 and 30)  turns up, jaws tend to drop. However, I can’t think of a single film made after 1960 that better wears the tag of film noir. Disillusionment, the abandonment of free will, redemption and absolution all come served up by a raging pair of geniuses: Abel Ferrara and Harvey Keitel. It’s the final word. We’ll be running the notorious NC-17 version.

SF360: Would you talk about the three programs related to Hitchcock?

Lavine: Mirage (August 21) was an outgrowth of an earlier Universal Hitchcopy, Stanley Donen’s Charade, a dazzling 1963 variant of the Master’s North by Northwest.  Both share screenwriter Peter Stone, and actors Walter Matthau and George Kennedy. But Mirage, directed by classic noir stalwart Edward Dmytryk, comes out of a somewhat darker strain of Hitchcock,  and the plot—an amnesiac desperately trying to reconstruct his past before something very terrible happens— is warmed-over Hitchcock at best. But it’s widescreen and black-and-white and that’s enough for me. Plus, Diane Baker is in it. The other two Hitchcock Homagia films play as a double feature on August 27. Brian DePalma’s Obsession (1976), is one in a string of worshipful recreations that began with Sisters a few years earlier and continued to flourish through the '70s and '80s with Carrie, The Fury, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, and Body Double. Obsession is a messy yet compelling rehash of Vertigo replete with a spellbinding Bernard Herrmann score. Paul Schrader wrote the script with a keen eye towards DePalma’s Hitchcockian intentions. The co-feature, Last Embrace (1979), directed by Jonathan Demme, draws its inspiration from Hitchcock’s emotionally intense characterizations of men obsessed with their own interiors. Roy Scheider manages to slip inside of James Stewart’s shoes just long enough to remind us of where we’ve been, but Demme gives the film its own dark drive that ultimately contributes to a deeper appreciation of Hitchcock himself. It’s a practically forgotten film, one that stands tall on its own cinematic merits.

SF360: You mentioned Paul Schrader who has a strong presence in the series.

Lavine: Schrader seems to loom pretty large over the entire second week. Before his screenplays were being produced by the likes of Scorsese and DePalma, Schrader was a respected critic. He published a groundbreaking 1973 cover story about film noir for Film Comment magazine that has often been credited for helping reintroduce American movie audiences to this classic style of filmmaking. Blue Collar (August 29 and 30) is a personal favorite of mine and not just because it’s filmed in my hometown of Detroit. It’s Schrader’s first film as a director (1978), it puts Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel in the same film (!), and the tension is palpable, as allegedly everyone hated or was at least mistrustful of everyone else on the set. The result effectively communicates a despairingly downbeat message. Schrader is well represented with Obsession and Rolling Thunder (September 2), which he wrote, and Blue Collar (August 29 and 30) and Hardcore (September 2), which he wrote and directed; all between 1976 and 1979. Seen together, they offer an interestingly consistent view of a seriously flawed universe, rife with emotional frenzy and loss of control. These are strongly identified noir conceits and they tend to drive Schrader’s films to their fateful conclusions.

SF360: What are some can’t miss rarities?

Lavine: Definitely House of Horrors and its startling, rare co-feature, The Face Behind the Mask (1941). People who know the latter one tend to think of it as a horror film, but it straddles the noir line closely. Peter Lorre plays an idealistic immigrant who turns to a savage life of crime after being hideously burned in a fire. Evelyn Keyes plays the blind girl who sees him for who he is. Another terrific rarity is The Creeping Unknown (1956) that plays the same evening as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).  It’s a British sci-fi horror film with the brilliantly atmospheric look and feel of noir. Cold war paranoia in the form of cosmic catastrophe winds up being at the very heart of this one. Body Snatchers, which kicks off the series August. 20, is my own personal favorite. I always think of it as very noir with its despairingly pessimistic world view. People who might challenge the right for a science fiction film’s claim to noir status should be reminded that its director, Don Siegel, is also responsible for Private Hell 36, The Line Up, and The Killers.  

The Sadist (1963) is remarkable for a number of reasons. It’s a no-budget exploitation film about a psychotic teenager and his mute girl friend (clearly inspired by Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate a full decade before Terrence Malick’s Badlands), who terrorize a group of teachers at an abandoned junkyard. Sound promising? It was photographed in razor sharp black and white by Vilmos Zsigmond and directed for maximum impact by James Landis who never quite lived up to the expectations created by this bleak, heart stopping masterpiece. It’s frightening in a cold, angry way and unconventional when viewed alongside many of the other terror films produced in the wake of Hitchcock’s Psycho. A Town Has Turned to Dust, which first appeared on television’s Playhouse 90 back in 1958, is perhaps the rarest film on the program. The original teleplay was by Rod Serling, a year before Twilight Zone, and was directed by John Frankenheimer four years before The Manchurian Candidate mesmerized moviegoers. The story is all about racial prejudice in small town America, but the real stars here are Frankenheimer’s intensely personal direction and a young William Shatner as the manic leader of a rabid lynch mob.

SF360: You describe Mickey One (1965), directed by Arthur Penn, as an American version of a French New Wave film. Please explain.

Lavine: Just look at it.  It’s almost impossible not to think about Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, an adaptation of the American paperback writer David Goodis’s novel, Down There, which it resembles. Warren Beatty is the existential hero, a fringe nightclub comic who wanders helplessly into serious trouble. Both films speak the same dopey, sweat-stained poetry of film noir, primarily through the mood of the photography and the scattered nature of the narrative. Truffaut had already been courted to direct Bonnie and Clyde around this time and probably would have if the opportunity to make Fahrenheit 451 hadn’t come up. Beatty sought out Godard, who passed because he didn’t trust Hollywood.

SF360: Do you think we can see signs of the Michael Mann to come in his first feature, Thief?

Lavine: You bet! Thief (1981) is a tough, tough movie and Mann has built an extraordinary career as a director of smart, tough movies. Thief comes at a time when American directors had moved deeply into violently realistic films reminiscent of the dark-toned crime films of the late '40s and early '50s. The linkage to that heritage is on beautiful display in Thief, a brilliantly stylized film that said exactly the right thing at the right time. Visceral, fatalistic and well acted, it was a mighty impressive first feature.

SF360: Do you prefer the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers to the remakes and why?

Lavine:  The original version is my favorite film of all, but both Phil Kaufman’s 1978 and Abel Ferrara’s 1992 remakes are extraordinary and among my favorites as well. Any of the three would have been suitable for this group, but it was my own longstanding obsession with Don Siegel’s 1956 original that tipped the scales. It’s a truly frightening film and it resembles many of the mid-1950s crime films that mean so much to me. Siegel filmed it that way and the screenwriter, Daniel Mainwaring, sort of wrote it that way, too. Mainwaring also wrote Out of the Past (1947), one of the most intoxicating noir films ever made. For me, those two films, a pair of unlikely cousins about private eyes and seedpods, are forever linked by their unifying vision of a black and white world completely out of control. Hope to see you there!