Thursday, March 23, 2017


So, what is film noir? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie pop? The world may never know on both counts, but there are certainly several legitimate postulations for the former.

Film still from THIS GUN FOR HIRE, our NOIR CITY '17 opening night film.
Film noir, translating to “black film” in French, was a term bestowed retroactively to features generally referred to as melodramas or crime dramas at the time of their production; at first, the moniker was usually reserved for American titles that fit the bill made after World War II. Coined in Nino Frank’s 1946 essay and explored in depth by French critics Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton in their 1955 work Panorama du film noir américain 1941–1953 (A Panorama of American Film Noir) the label has, in the ensuring six decades, been alternatively referred to as a genre, style, cycle, period, mood and so on. Certainly, some of these identifiers hold more water than others, but overall, film noir tends to transcend boundaries placed upon it. That goes for time, as well; with a plethora of visual and story influences including German Expressionism, hardboiled detective fiction (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain), neo-realism and the anguish of the war years, traces of noir can be recognized across a multitude of genres stretching from today back to a century ago. Despite the range attributed to films noir, many scholars have settled on 1940's Stranger on the Third Floor as the first full-fledged noir picture.

To me, the vast reach of noir is exactly what makes movies classified as such so gratifying to watch. As much as I adore the escapism of what most of classic Hollywood offers, traversing the gritty streets and back alleys of film noir every so often provides the antithesis: a rougher look at the world shrouded in shadows and gloom. Though many of these tales skew melancholy and cynical with undertones of corruption, violence, moral ambiguity, and the like, it's important to remember that not every noir entry centers around archetypal embittered males and sultry femme fatales crossing paths in menacing black and white urban landscapes (typically leaving some bodies in their wake). Once you've conquered essentials such as Double Indemnity (1944) or The Naked City (1948), I recommend branching out for a taste of noir's breadth with titles like Desert Fury (1947), a Technicolor Western boasting noir heavyweights Lizabeth Scott and Burt Lancaster; Sleep, My Love (1948), a Claudette Colbert-Don Ameche starrer that would have fit nicely into the Cinematheque's recent series on gaslighting; or Hell Drivers (1957), a masculine yarn about truckers working for a corrupt company who engage in what amounts to a daily race to the death. There's so many diverse offerings out there that the viewing options seem - and very well could be - endless, but both the noir innocent and seasoned fan alike would be wise to tread fearlessly into the latest edition of Noir City.

Now entering its 19th year in Hollywood, Noir City has brilliantly showcased noir’s aforementioned scope, presenting a hearty mix of well-known movies with rare B-pictures over the years. Recent lineups have included proto-noir (a quadruple feature of 1934's The Ninth Guest, 1939's Let Us Live, 1934's Heat Lightning, and 1931's Safe in Hell closed 2015's festival); foreign entries (1959's Two Men in Manhattan and 1955's Rififi from France, 1943's Ossessione from Italy, 1949's Hardly a Criminal and 1953's El Vampiro Negro from Argentina); pre-Code exposes (1932's Okay, America! and 1932's Afraid to Talk); and even previously lost pictures brought back to life (1950's Woman on the Run and 1956's Los Tallos Amargos).

At a 2016 Noir City screening of Anthony Mann-helmed films Side Street (1949) and Dr. Broadway (1942), the Film Foundation's Eddie Muller cited the evening's A-B double bill as an example of how he intended to program the festival, in part to mirror the way audiences watched movies over 60 years ago. With Hollywood's event this year, that objective has become organizing principle. In addition to 2017's 'A-to-B' theme, most selections are paired with movies released the same year, with the series as a whole running chronologically from 1942-1953. That means acclaimed films noir such as Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear (1944) and The Big Heat (1953) will play alongside lesser known titles like Address Unknown (1944) and Wicked Woman (1953), respectively. With each bill replicating a year’s typical picture pairing, Noir City Hollywood 19 is sure to provide a transportive moviegoing experience.

As someone who has watched most of the noir entries identified as 'classics,' I now tend to set my sights on any obscure titles I can find, and the crazier the noir, the better. Upon inspection of this year's slate, it looks like the festival won't let me down. The fact that four-fifths of the pictures included are unfamiliar to me means that for the most part, I'll be navigating uncharted territory, and I can't think of anything more electrifying. Oh, and as an added bonus for film purists, 17 of the 20 selections will be presented on 35mm.

Loretta Young and Robert Cummings in THE ACCUSED.

Here's a preview of select movies screening:

On March 24, Noir City Hollywood opens with a new 35mm print of early noir offering This Gun for Hire (1942), which scores on every level: stars (Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake), future notable noir scribes (W.R. Burnett and Albert Maltz), cinematography (John Seitz, who would lens Double Indemnity) and costumes (8-time Oscar winner Edith Head). Following a cocktail hour for all ticket buyers, the evening's second feature, which has never released on DVD, is Quiet Please, Murder (1942) with the inimitable George Sanders. For those familiar with the English star, can't you picture this title rolling off his tongue? (In a haughty, slightly sinister way, of course.)

On March 25, production designer turned director William Cameron Menzies takes the stage with Address Unknown, featuring cinematography by the famed Rudolph Maté (1928's The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1932's Vampyr, 1940's Foreign Correspondent, etc.)

On March 26, get ready for noir-lite, as Lady on a Train (1945) breaks out the music and comedy. Star Deanna Durbin shares the screen with favorite Dan Duryea, who was basically born for noir. (Seriously, who can picture those two appearing in the same movie?)

THE BIG HEAT, a Noir audience favorite, closes out NOIR CITY 2017 on April 2nd.

On March 27, the rarely screened Behind Green Lights (1946), starring Carole Landis in one of her final roles, serves up a hearty dose of Midwestern political corruption and murder.

On March 28, a "long-lost noir" directed by John Farrow resurfaces: Calcutta (1947), featuring - what else - a mysterious death...and an Asian smuggling ring.

On March 29, Loretta Young makes a noir appearance in The Accused (1948) as a professor who kills in self-defense. Here's hoping we'll see shades of a feisty pre-Code Young in this one.

On March 30, Noir City presents future perfect TV wife gone bad, part 1: Donna Reed in Chicago Deadline (1949). As a big fan of Reed playing against type, that's all I really need to know about this rare title.

On March 31, explosive cop Dana Andrews finds himself in a wee bit of trouble (of the murder variety) in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). This noir powerhouse also flaunts the talents of star Gene Tierney, director Otto Preminger, and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle (1944's Laura). Second on the bill is The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), in which Evelyn Keyes unknowingly spreads smallpox around Manhattan while seeking revenge on her boyfriend-stealing sister. Intrigued yet?

Our NOIR CITY 2017 promo postcard.

On April 1, The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950) presents future perfect TV wife gone bad, part 2: Jane Wyatt. Besides the strong cast (Lee J. Cobb, John Dall), don't miss the picture's San Francisco locations; that city was built for noir.

On April 2, Noir City Hollywood 19 wraps with The Big Heat (1953), showcasing a sizzling, talented trio who can do no wrong in noir: director Fritz Lang and stars Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford. (But let's get one thing straight: someone will surely be wronged in the picture.) The B-side that evening, Wicked Woman (1953), stars Beverly Michaels as a woman who aims to love 'em and leave 'em - not counting director Russell Rouse, though, who she later married and stayed with till death did them part. Buyer beware, such joyful denouements are rare in noir - and that's just how the fans like them!

Kim Luperi has been attending Noir City since 2014. She works in development at a production company by day and is a freelance social copywriter for TCM by night. In the little free time she has, she can be found at screenings around town, programming documentaries for an indie film festival and trying to relive her gymnastics glory days. She blogs every so often at I See A Dark Theater and tweets occasionally at @kimbo3200.

The 19th Annual Film Noir Festival was sponsored by Big Boss sponsor, Warner Archive, Femme Fatale sponsors, Bonhams and Golden Age, and Gumshoe sponsors, Hoccomocco Pictures / Thin Ice, Museum of Neon Art, and Sweeney Todd's Barber Shop.

The Opening Night Cocktail Hour was sponsored by CLARENDELLE inspired by Haut-Brion, Pisco Viejo Tonel, and Teeling Irish Whiskey.