Noir or not?

Pub date January 30, 2008
WriterMatt Sussman
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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Nothing brings out the pugilist in film critics like a discussion of what does or doesn’t count as film noir, which is perhaps appropriate, given the number of slugs, sucker punches, fisticuffs, and beatings that occur onscreen in the movies being discussed. As with any kind of canon formation, the issue can prompt trainspotting, finger-pointing, and impassioned arguments. But the question — as much of the scholarship on the subject has shown — is something of a red herring.

Despite the stylistic qualities that seemed to unify them — chiaroscuro lighting, a fixation on the seedy underbellies of urban space and people’s souls, devouring women and browbeaten men, a curiously persistent lack of daylight — the ’30s and ’40s American movies that cinema-starved French critics wolfed down after World War II had originally been marketed at home as different types of genre films. The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers (1946) was a gothic romance; Detour (1945) was a low-budget B-movie thriller; and Joan Crawford vehicles such as Possessed (1947) and Mildred Pierce (1945) were women’s pictures. A number of films now considered noirs began as literary adaptations — take your pick of any inspired by James Cain, Raymond Chandler, or Dashiell Hammett, or Robert Siodmak’s 1946 take on Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers.

Noir City 6, czar of noir Eddie Muller’s yearly celebration of not-on-DVD rarities and shadow-dappled classics resurrected from studio vaults, offers plenty of fodder for noir-or-not debate. The programming spans from the critically enshrined (Jules Dassin’s 1950 Night and the City) to the relatively unknown (1960’s The 3rd Voice) and the not so old (the Coen brothers’ 2001 neonoir The Man Who Wasn’t There). Perhaps more than past incarnations, Noir City 6 makes a case for film noir as a set of stylistic conventions — or, alternately, for noir as an inspired malaise that permeates a film like stale cigarette smoke — rather than something hard-and-fast that sports a time stamp.

The festival’s second week features two period pieces, which might surprise fans expecting a parade of hired guns in fedoras and femmes fatales in pantsuits. Robert Siodmak’s The Suspect (from 1944, the same year he made the Maria Montez jewel Cobra Woman) follows one husband’s slow road to hell in Edwardian England as he offs his wife at the behest of a new lady friend. Reign of Terror (1949) sets the way-back machine to the French Revolution, but instead of liberté, égalité, fraternité, we get greed, deceit, and betrayal. Celebrated cinematographer John Alton — who has rightly been called noir’s painter of light — is in top form here, transforming the standard back-lot Paris street sets into a backdrop more closely resembling the city’s catacombs.

Reign of Terror screens as part of the festival’s tribute to character actor Charles McGraw, whose rugged visage made him a favorite for cop and tough-guy roles, including a memorably menacing hit man in The Killers and a star turn as a detective in The Narrow Margin (1952) alongside Marie Windsor. "[McGraw’s] guttural rasp of a voice, reminiscent of broken china plates grating around in a burlap sack, was complemented by an intimidating, laserlike glare," critic and Noir City coplanner Alan K. Rode writes in his recently published book Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy (McFarland), which he’ll sign at the tribute.

Also on the McGraw double bill is Anthony Mann’s brutal Tex-Mex mystery Border Incident (1949), in which the actor plays a sadistic ranch owner involved in an illegal-immigrant smuggling and exploitation ring. Again, Alton’s cinematography perfectly frames the standout performances from bronze screen legend Ricardo Montalban as an undercover Mexican federale and Howard Da Silva as the racist crook he has to bust, setting into relief the two characters’ moral distance from each other in one memorable medium shot. (To go back to the subject of canon formation, between Border Incident, Orson Welles’s 1958 Touch of Evil, and John Sayles’s 1996 Lone Star, a host of films could pack a frontera-themed noir program.)

Alton’s transformation of the Imperial Valley into a silvery, inhospitable moonscape — especially during the knife-and-quicksand offing of a group of frightened braceros under the cover of night — is an inversion of the sun-baked mesas and sage-scoured plains that typically dominate the western genre. In Border Incident he and Mann show us that corruption lurks in the wide-open spaces as much as it festers in the Piccadilly Circus back alleys of Dassin’s Night and the City or the ritzy enclaves of Chandler’s Los Angeles.

That vision brings us to the Coen brothers, whose No Country for Old Men qualifies as perhaps the latest entry in the group of borderland noirs, though their The Man Who Wasn’t There is the more obvious noir homage. Despite the often bleached-out palette of its mise-en-scène, No Country for Old Men drives home the nihilism that is at the heart of all film noirs with all the force of Javier Bardem’s pneumatic hammer. In noir as in No Country, even the most hardened cop is made to confront the futility of his convictions, Manichaeanism is disproved by double crosses and spilled blood, and the only thing one can bank on is what Noir City 6 promises in its tagline: no happy endings.


Through Sun/3, $12

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120