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The Many Shades of Film Noir

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Fri, Mar 21, 2014 at 5:31 AM
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Described by critic-turned-filmmaker Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) as "not defined, as are the western and gangster genres, by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood," film noir continues to draw people to the movies more than a half-century after its heyday. That it endures as one of the most popular of all cinematic genres is quite a feat, considering it was never intended as one: many of the aesthetic qualities now associated with movies like Double Indemnity and In a Lonely Place - low-key lighting, off-kilter camera angles, those rich shadows - were originally as much a matter of financial necessity as they were of artistic license.

Noir is a much more nebulous affair than romantic comedies or action flicks even now, and part of the fun has always been how hard to pin down it is. Noir City: Hollywood, being the American Cinematheque's 16th annual festival of film noir, will celebrate this ambiguity by presenting more than 20 exemplars of the genre today through April 6 at the Egyptian. The program runs the gamut from perennial classics (M, Rififi) to lesser-known curios (Too Late for Tears, Southside 1-1000), with a number of brand-new 35mm restorations and tributes to filmmakers (Dan Dureya) and actors (Joan Fontaine) rounding out an already stacked lineup.

Probably the best-known of these is Fritz Lang's M, and for good reason. Still haunting today, the film introduces one of the most wretched and, in the end, pitiable antagonists of all time. There's also Rififi, perhaps the sleekest and coolest of all films noir. Featuring one of the most famous and influential heist sequences ever filmed, Jules Dassin's 1955 benchmark is relaxed in its violence and impactful beyond the screen: That thirty-minute heist was so meticulous that it led to a number of copycat crimes, which in turn led to the film being banned in several countries.

Every genre has its outliers, but what of a genre made up of nothing but? If noir may be thought of as existing in the shades of grey between gangster movies and German Expressionism, between stylistic tendencies and a fully-formed movement, then its differences are also its unifiers. It thus follows from noir's own dream logic that such a diverse crop of films could at least partially fall under the same umbrella.
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  • Detour
Easy to overlook but not to be missed among the harvest is Detour, Edgar G. Ulmer's tale of a drive to Los Angeles gone horribly awry. Made on the cheap and barely an hour long, it's as deliriously entertaining and fatalistic as any film mentioned above - and an even stronger example of necessity being the mother of invention vis-à-vis noir's stylistic hallmarks. Ulmer was a master craftsman who maximized every penny of his shoestring budget, and the warts-and-all result is an improbable classic that, as the scholar James Naremore put it, "provides justification for the idea that down-market thrillers are more authentic, less compromised by bourgeois-liberal sentiment or totalitarian spectacle, than the usual Hollywood product." It strips noir down to the core, preserving its essence and eliding the luxuries.

So many low-budget crime movies now considered noir were made in the '40s and '50s that even the most enthusiastic fans of the genre are still discovering new exemplars today. Too Late for Tears and Larceny, which are paired as the festival's opening-night double feature, are unknown to me and intriguing for that reason alone. Perhaps more than any other genre, noir invites viewers to explore its depths and jump into new movies on a whim. The results are worth it, as the next two weeks will almost certainly show.


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