The curator of a Northwest Film Center crime film series talks about the hardboiled Hollywood movies he loves.
“All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun,” quipped Jean-Luc Godard famously, and while there are girls and guns in westerns and war films, you can’t help but think that Godard had in mind the sort of movie that French critics called film noir.
Movies about cynical private eyes, crooked cops, scheming dames, and fallen angels, about double-crosses, botched capers, framed innocents and psychopathic kill sprees, movies shot in dark shadows and sweaty close-ups, with titles like “D. O. A.,” “Gun Crazy,” “Kiss of Death,” and “The Devil Thumbs a Ride,” and stars like Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame, Lizabeth Scott, Claire Trevor: that’s Noir.
Just before World War II, the traditional Hollywood gangster movie began to give way to a new strain of crime story, often inspired by the works of hardboiled novelists Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, often made, at least in part, by directors and screenwriters who had arrived in California from Europe as war-time refugees. By the end of the ’40s, Noir was the essential American crime style, resulting in key works by such directors as Orson Welles, Otto Preminger, Raoul Walsh, and Jules Dassin and giving starts to the careers of, among others, Samuel Fuller, Phil Karlson and even Stanley Kubrick.
The story of Noir has been celebrated in documentaries and film festivals for decades, but one of the most notable collections ever to grace Portland is being shown this month at the Northwest Film Center
. “Dangerous Desires: Film Noir Classics”
is an impeccably curated selection of a dozen titles, all but two of them fairly obscure, and some of them not available for home viewing in any format.
The series has been mounted for the NFC by the Film Noir Foundation
, which is, in its own words, “an educational resource regarding the cultural, historical, and artistic significance of film noir as an original American cinematic movement.” For the opening weekend of the series, Film Noir Foundation founder and president Eddie Muller
, author of several books about Noir, will be on hand to present two of the titles, both in 35mm prints: “The Prowler,” Joseph Losey’s
1951 tale of a crooked cop (Van Heflin
) lusting after a housewife; and “The Hunted,”
a 1948 drama about an ex-con (the English actress Belita
) out to seek vengeance against the people who sent her to prison.
In advance of his visit, Muller answered some questions about Noir in general and “Dangerous Desires” in particular via e-mail.
Film Noir historian Eddie Muller
In a sense, Noir is like jazz in that it was an American form first recognized as great in Europe. But Noir also has deep American roots. So is it an American art form or a European art form or something in between?
I was just using the jazz analogy with my fellow jurors at a film festival in Montreal. Slightly different context. I was suggesting that genre films — especially crime films — are like jazz in that the stories typically feature a familiar plot, the way many jazz classics derive from familiar structures and melodies, and we appreciate how different artists interpret the standard piece. Generally speaking, the foundation of noir–the writing, the style of the language–comes from America, specifically that fresh American masculine voice that emerged post WW1, most famously in Hemingway. When his style was adapted to crime stories in the late 1920s and ’30s, most successfully for writers such as Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler, the seeds of noir were planted. The visual allure of noir, however, the classic chiaroscuro lighting and heightened theatricality, largely came with the influx of European directors trained in Berlin: Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Otto Preminger — even Alfred Hitchcock to some extent. Noir is the result of a tough American attitude mixing it up with a sophisticated European style.
So many Noir classics were made at small studios or by second- (or third-) tier units at the big studios, which makes me wonder if there was, during the classic era, a size beyond which Noir could not go. Could there have been (or are there any) A-movie Noirs?
Absolutely. Every studio produced “noir” on both A and B levels. Once “Double Indemnity” was a box office hit, and was nominated for five Oscars, films of that type became extremely popular. Alan Ladd was Paramount’s biggest box office draw, and he made film noir almost exclusively for awhile — “This Gun for Hire,” “The Glass Key,” “The Blue Dahlia,” etc. Bogart is almost synonymous with noir and he was Warner’s biggest draw of the 1940s. Over at Fox, films like “Kiss of Death” and “Nightmare Alley” were absolutely A-list films utilizing the studios biggest stars. At MGM, Louis B. Mayer HATED these kinds of films, but that didn’t stop the studio from making them — and MGM rarely made ‘cheap’ movies. In this series, “High Wall” is a classic example: Robert Taylor was one of the MGM’s biggest stars, and this film is almost definitive noir, and a definite “A” production. Poverty Row studios loved this type of film because it required so little in terms of locations, cast size, production. “Detour” is the obvious example. I always say: “All you need to have a good film noir is a man, a woman, and a locked hotel room.”
The Noir era was over when the Hays Production Code (Hollywood’s self-imposed system of film censorship) finally collapsed. But Noir did so many great things in a kind of friction or dialectic against what the censors might’ve quashed. Could the classic Noir have flourished had there been complete freedom of content and themes?
Excellent question! I’m not sure of the answer, but I absolutely believe that the existence of the Production Code and the rise of film noir are organically entwined. And I also believe that the Code made filmmakers — from writers and directors right through to editors and wardrobe designers — more innovative and creative. The goal was to tell more daring and adult stories without being ‘obvious’ about things like sex, addiction, abortion, homosexuality, you name it. But all that stuff is in there, albeit often in codified fashion. But that’s part of the reason the films remain timeless — they are rarely as simple as we believed them to be. I’ve had the advantage of watching many of these films with people who worked on them or acted in them and they left me with little doubt about what was being suggested. The filmmakers were often playing a game with the censors, seeing how they could get things into the films. We’re really just catching up.
Leaving out the US, France and Germany, which are its chief homes or the places of origin of so many of its innovators, what nations have Noir traditions worth exploring that might not leap readily to mind?
I’m investigating this right now. I plan to do a festival of International Noir. What’s obvious to me, having traveled abroad with just this notion in mind, is how wrongly Hollywood-centric the study of film noir has been. As far back as the 1940s there was a trans-Continental give-and-take going on, and not just between the U.S. and Europe. There is an extensive ‘noir’ history in Japan, in Britain, in Spain, in Mexico, Italy, Greece, in Argentina. I’ve recently seen some wonderful noir films from Buenos Aires, made contemporaneous with the late 1940s noir classics from Hollywood. Many of them have never been seen outside Argentina! Hollywood undoubtedly had the greatest influence on filmmaking around the world, and it’s thrilling to see how the noir style was adapted to, or reinterpreted in, different cultures.
What films in this series do you reckon most people haven’t seen and should not miss?
All of them, frankly. I’m a true believer: If you haven’t seen it on movie screen, projected in 35mm, then you haven’t seen the actual film. Some of these — like “The Hunted,” “Pitfall,” “Loophole,” and “Naked Alibi” — you simply cannot see right now anywhere else than in a series like this. There literally are single prints of these films, and many of them are in the Film Noir Foundation Collection at the UCLA Film & Television Archive. We have funded the preservation of these titles, and the only way they get shown is with our say-so. So I’m glad the Northwest Film Center asked, because I like to spread the Noir gospels.
Where: The Whitsell Auditorium of the Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave.
Tickets: $9 general; $8 PAM members, students, seniors; $6 NFC Silver Screen members, children
“The Prowler” Friday, September 14, 7 p.m.
“The Hunter” Saturday, September 15, 9 p.m.
“Nobody Lives Forever” Sunday, September 16, 7 p.m.
“Pitfall” Thursday, September 20, 7 p.m.
“The Glass Key” Saturday, September 22, 7 p.m.
“The Blue Dahlia” Saturday, September 22, 9 p.m.
“The Window” Sunday, September 23, 7 p.m.
“Caught” Friday, September 28, 7 p.m.
“High Wall” Saturday, September 29, 7 p.m.
“99 River Street” Saturday, September 29, 9 p.m.
“Loophole” Sunday, September 30, 5 p.m.
“The Naked Alibi” Sunday, September 30, 7 p.m.