The L.A. Rep-port: Noir City, by Scott Nye
Noir isn’t just the genre trappings we’re constantly sold; long shadows and dangerous ladies and hardened men. It’s something that digs into the soul and the body and the way we try to live with and apart one another. It’s a nightmare, a fantasy, a sick romance or a sweet obsession. Never does the genre feel so flexible and boundless than while I watch films at Noir City, the annual ten-day festival of genre pictures programmed by the folks at the Film Noir Foundation and hosted by the Egyptian Theatre.
This being the twentieth such program they’ve put on in Hollywood, they’re celebrating by only showing movies shot and set in our fair city. This is not only exciting because it’s fun to see depictions of your city from years past, but also because, as everyone knows, Los Angeles is noir city. It’s a place people flock to when they need to get away. We might not all have violent pasts or the law after us. Somehow we just didn’t fit where we started, and trickled down here hoping for a better life. That better life doesn’t always materialize. The boredom, the bitterness, and the loneliness start setting in. Before long, we’ll take any escape, no matter how dangerous. We latch onto glamour that will ruin us and people who will betray us. Visually, the ever-present sun makes for the perfect contrast to the cold narratives.
The Film Noir Foundation has, as is their wont, not programmed some of the more obvious films that fit this theme, so those hoping to see Double Indemnity or Sunset Boulevard are out of luck. The festival functions for me as an avenue of discovery, so such selections would only degrade the excitement. Consequently, I am less enthused by Saturday night’s showcase for L.A. Confidential. Not only is it too recent a film to fit properly in the spirit of the program, I also don’t know that I’d say it’s much of a noir at all. Sure, it has the suits and the guns and the crime and the women, but it doesn’t have that flirtation with pitch-black evil that, to me, truly marks the genre. FNF Founder and President Eddie Muller has suggested that noir can be defined as any film in which someone makes the wrong decision; L.A. Confidential is about people gradually making the right ones. Good cop movie; not much of a noir.
Luckily, the rest of the week should more than make up for it. Of the films being shown, I can only personally vouch for Kiss Me Deadly and The Prowler, which are about as great as the cinema comes in any genre, and I can only speak against He Walked by Night, which I find to be a real drag. There are better procedurals, and certainly better Richard Basehart vehicles. One of them, 1949’s Tension, is even set in L.A., but they showed it four years ago at this very program, so I understand not wanting to go that route again.
Then again, they showed the 1951 American version of M that same year, and they’re bringing it back again this time for a triple-feature evening dedicated to director Joseph Losey. That program starts with The Prowler and concludes with The Big Night, the last film he made in America before being blacklisted. Losey was one of the most electric voices of his generation. His films dripped with sin and desperation; maybe not the headspace you want to be in most weeks, but when it’s Noir City time, it’s best to go all the way.
I’m especially excited to finally see The Blue Dahlia, scripted as it is by Raymond Chandler and starring as it does Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, the only two stars short enough to properly stand alongside one another. That film is paired with I Love Trouble, and if that title isn’t enough to hook you, this film’s never been released on DVD so this is the only way to find out.
Kiss Me Deadly is similarly paired with a rare one, 1959’s City of Fear. Noir City doesn’t typically show films made so late, but there’s something intriguing about pushing the limits here, especially as – like its companion – it deals in stolen radioactive material. It also features an early score by Jerry Goldsmith.
William Dieterle has two entries this year, 1950’s Dark City (starring Charlton Heston and Lizabeth Scott, two of the more vocally compelling stars of the era) and 1952’s The Turning Point (itself lead by the great William Holden). The latter is the only film that will be shown on DCP (all the rest are 35mm prints, baby!), though at least it’s a brand-new restoration. Both these films play on separate nights, but when paired with a Richard Fleischer picture and a Michael Curtiz, respectively, it’s hard to go wrong.
There are two I am absolutely most intrigued by. The first is Jealousy, directed by Gustav Machatý, who – aside from having a name similar to a jungle-chopping instrument – was probably most famous for making the infamous scandal known as Ecstasy in 1933. The program description for it starts with “perky female cabbie” and ends with “part bargain-basement loopiness, part experimental art film”, so they’re speaking my language. The second is Night Has a Thousand Eyes, adapted from Cornell Woolrich’s novel and directed by John Farrow. Woolrich has been such a great source for noir films (like Rear Window, Phantom Lady, and especially The Chase) and Farrow directed two of the absolute finest noirs I’ve ever seen (His Kind of Woman and Where Danger Lives; I also highly recommend Alias Nick Beal and The Big Clock). It was also especially recommended by Guy Maddin on his commentary track for The Chase. Neither Jealousy nor Night Has a Thousand Eyes are available on DVD, so their presence here is especially exciting.
But I recommend checking out the entire program for yourself, and making the most of it. I sometimes get frustrated with noir fanatics who try to pigeonhole the genre into tough guys and smooth-talking dames; Noir City reminds me of each and every year is how diverse and downright strange the form could be. Especially considering these were essentially churned out as crime films, these are incredibly adventurous, often truly dark films that are not always entirely interested in just satisfying the requirements their audience – then or now – have for them. And I couldn’t be more excited to find out what surprises await.