Los Angeles and film noir go together like a dame and a gat. Perhaps that's why Noir City — L.A.'s longest-running festival of classic crime cinema — has endured for so long. Now in its 20th year, the fest will shine a bright spotlight on the town that inspired it with 10 consecutive nights of double features — plus a special triple — set in and around the City of Angels.
This unabashed celebration of noir — a term coined by French critics to describe a film style derived from hardboiled American fiction and characterized by low-key lighting, doomed protagonists and fateful narratives in urban settings — is the fruit of a cinematic triumvirate: the Film Noir Foundation, a nonprofit founded by author-programmer-historian Eddie Muller; biographer-programmer-historian Alan K. Rode; and the American Cinematheque, whose Egyptian Theatre hosts the annual event.
The fest's history stretches back to 1999, when Muller, aka the “Czar of Noir,” had just completed his magisterial survey of the genre, Dark City. Dennis Bartok, then lead programmer — now general manager — of the Cinematheque, invited Muller to design a festival based on that tome, with the idea of inviting several of the actors and directors mentioned in its pages as guests. Among the titles that graced the screen of the Egyptian that first year were such B-movie treasures as Detour, The Narrow Margin and 99 River Street.
The subtitle of Muller's book, The Lost World of Film Noir, refers not only to the alienated domain of its loner protagonists but to the sobering fact that many of these movies seemed to have vanished down the memory hole of history. Where did all of these pictures — some of them outright masterpieces — disappear to?
That's when the seed for a nonprofit was planted. Rode, then a journalist based in San Diego, met Muller at the Cinematheque and soon came aboard as a collaborator. A second festival was established at San Francisco's Castro Theatre. The Film Noir Foundation was formed in 2005, using earnings from the San Francisco site to locate and restore classic films.
One of the significant accomplishments of the Film Noir Foundation is that many of the entities that hold the rights to these classic films have come to view the organization as a trusted collaborator in film preservation. Muller's regular gig on Turner Classic Movies, “Noir Alley,” provides an invaluable platform from which to promulgate his ongoing project to preserve as many films as possible, while Rode's lengthy stewardship of the annual Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival and recent biography of director Michael Curtiz have been received with acclaim.
Muller and Rode — always the best-dressed gentlemen in the room — will introduce many of the titles at this year's series, which is appropriately themed after what many consider to be the noir capital of the world, Los Angeles. Asked about the enduring appeal of L.A., home to such legendary crime scribes as Chandler and Cain, Muller is quick to answer. “It's where dreams go to die. Los Angeles is supposed to be a paradise. But clearly, the lesson of film noir is that people carry their own destruction with them. If you arrive in paradise, you're going to destroy it. In the movies, you see the underside of paradise.”
Certainly, titles like The Blue Dahlia and Kiss Me Deadly bespeak the grim poetry of a town whose identity is always in a state of flux, and whose nervous energy seems inscribed in the mise-en-scène.
Other highlights of the series include He Walked by Night, a tense police procedural based on the true story of Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker; Joseph Losey's sublimely pessimistic The Prowler; and the exceedingly rare The Scarlet Hour, a late-career Michael Curtiz picture touted by Rode as “one of the least seen film noirs of the 1950s.”
But the centerpiece of the series, which runs through April 22, is the scheduled appearance of hardboiled suspense legend James Ellroy, who will appear on Saturday, April 14, to be honored by the Film Noir Foundation with a “Modern Noir Master” award following a screening of L.A. Confidential.
If you attend any of these programs, you may notice a pleasingly wide range among the audience members. Old-timers who remember these films from childhood will be there for nostalgia's sake, but the evenings also tend to draw younger crowds hungry for the style, drama and outright sexiness of these movies, which locate noir within a certain taxonomy of cool that makes them so resonant decades later. What's more, in this digitized age of instant streaming and stay-at-home binge watching, the archaic ritual of sitting in the dark with an eager crowd still holds tremendous appeal.
“I will always believe,” Muller says, “that a pristine 35mm print of a film will draw a crowd. That's what this fest is about. It's been a celebration. People want to celebrate not only the films themselves but the filmgoing experience.”