Will we ever tire of noir? Unlikely — the genre's organic expression of its time and place (postwar America, in all of its secret doubt and existential dread) makes the films deathlessly fascinating and vitally true.
Noirs, still written about and retro-screened and DVD'd more than any other Hollywood-product genre, live on in iconic resonance, their dread and rue so often perfectly expressed in the arid highways and open cities of SoCal. "Because here," as Joan Didion famously put it, "beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent."
Focusing on the sweatiest of L.A. County noirs, the new LACMA series trots out some of the canon's heaviest guns, beginning with Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955), a baroque atomic noir lifted out of Mickey Spillane and framed between torture by pliers and the inopportune opening of the ultimate Black Box.
Samuel Fuller's The Crimson Kimono (1959) posits a murder investigation in Little Tokyo, played in the typically wild key of Sam, but Allan Dwan's Slightly Scarlet (1956) sings a doleful L.A. ballad even better, adapted from James M. Cain and shot by John Alton in Technicolor so lurid that twin redhead bombshells Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl glow like Tijuana sunsets.
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Robert Siodmak's Criss Cross (1949) is a proto-noir classic, a must-see tribulation of love crushed by nihilism on the California highways, with a young Burt Lancaster as the schmuck with his balls in a vice (with Yvonne DeCarlo cranking the lever). Vincent Sherman's The Damned Don't Cry (1950) isn't quite a world-beater, but it does have Joan Crawford determinedly whoring her soul for money (mustering queasy parallels with the actress's own dogged rise from the bowels of Kansas City), and an unsettling turn by Kent Smith as a nebbishy accountant–turned–bitter mob factotum.
Joseph Losey's rarely screened M and The Prowler (both 1951), neither available on video, are perhaps the events here, the first a seething and thoroughly rethought Lang remake, the second a voyeuristic creep-out that has Van Heflin's obsessive cop stalk Evelyn Keyes at night while her radio-host husband (the voice of blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, who also pseudonymously wrote the script) is at work.
But time should be made for Jacques Tourneur's Nightfall (1957), a near-forgotten, fast-cheap-&-out-of-control sweat session in which the hulking yet quivering Aldo Ray hits the Big City on the run from something very bad and crosses paths in a bar with Anne Bancroft, a used-abused waif with the defensive posture of a squirrel among dogs. The movie radiates a fight-or-flight inquietude that itself could serve as a midcentury axiom, another feel-bad story America couldn't stop telling itself.
THE SUN SETS IN THE WEST: MIDCENTURY CALIFORNIA NOIR | May 18-26 | Bing Theater at LACMA | lacma.org