I don’t know what it is about film noir, but it holds a special som’n, som’n for a lot of people in Vancouver. For instance, this spring, the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage hosted the world premiere of Helen Lawrence, a mixed-media presentation from Stan Douglas and Chris Haddock, with a film noir take on Vancouver politics in 1948. Then in June, MacKenzie Gray’s film noir short Under the Bridge of Fear received eight nominations at the Leo Awards. Gray, meanwhile, was inspired to create his short after reading the book Vancouver Noir: 1930-1960 by Diane Purvey and John Belshaw.
And hey! Cinematheque’s popular summer season of film noir this August is not to be missed. You’ve got all month to indulge in the hard-boiled wonderland of the burnt-out-case and evil dame.
Arguably a style rather than a genre, film noir began in July 1946, when seven Hollywood films arrived in Paris, the first American cinema to reach France since the German occupation in WWII. Unlike France, WWII did not stop Hollywood from making film, and French film critics were hoping that these American films could help shape discussion on their own industry, which was in tatters following the war. Four of the seven films, all based on American crime novels, were B-movies from then unknown directors: The Maltese Falcon, Laura, Murder My Sweet, and Double Indemnity. The moment they arrived, with their squalid settings, cynical point of view and depraved characters, they produced moral outrage. But thanks, in part, to the French film critic Nino Frank, they eventually changed the shape of modern cinema.
On August 28, Frank produced an article A New Police Genre: The Criminal Adventure in defense of this vicious American cinema. Frank was a modernist, influenced by writers such as Emile Zola, along with Dada, Surrealism, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche. True to his roots, he admired the films’ “third dimension” – that of truth, of life and of thought – and pointed to their realistic situations and the visible inner workings of believable characters. According to Frank, these films noir, as he called them, tossed out old film conventions by reproducing the hard-boiled spirit of the crime novels on which they were based: their sharp dialogue, misogynist eroticism, lives that moved in strange twists and, especially, the stream-of-conscious narration of the male lead. The films exposed the savage underbelly of civilization and freed the audience to identify with the murderer even!
For Frank, film noir conveyed the modern ambience of a world congested by mean streets and the harsh glare of electric lights at night that affected human beings in strange, yet entirely believable ways. The hero’s journey, now took place in the dim, cramped rooms of urban reality, instead of out in wilds of romantic nature.
Other French critics seized his idea that talented directors making mass-market films could probe human psychology, and film noir became the talk of the town. Critics were drawn to other elements in the films, such as their expressionist lighting, low camera angles and surrealism and the genre of film noir was born. In the 1960s, US filmmakers were inspired by French New Wave, which paid homage to film noir, and began to re-interpret the genre by way of existentialism. They explored themes of isolation, alienation, paranoia and psychosis. Roman Polanski’s nihilist Chinatown (1974) represents the culmination of this exploration, but David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and Quentin Tarrantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) are all examples of films that owe a large debt to film noir.
At The Cinematheque, Gun Crazy tops the list of the films on offer this year. Jim Sinclair, Executive Director, describes it as “dynamic, stylish, cool.” Released in 1950 as a B-movie, Gun Crazy developed a cult following and quickly became a cornerstone in film noir. It is widely regarded as one of best gangster movies to come out of America. The story revolves around a sociopathic couple, Bart and Annie, both dangerously fond of guns, whose love affair is doomed by Annie’s penchant for making money through a life of crime. Sound familiar? Their outlaw spree across western American has been ripped off by many movies, including Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Badlands (1973) and Natural Born Killers (1994).
So Dark the Night (1948), by the same director, Joseph Lewis, is a rare gem that Sinclair has been trying to get for years. It screens August 24 to 27. And another film to top Sinclair’s list is Detective Story (1951) staring Kirk Douglas as a bitter cop whose pursuit of an abortionist leads him to discover that his own wife had an abortion. The film delivers Douglas “in his best role ever,” says Sinclair. Not to mention – ooh – a gritty story.
For a schedule of films and dates visit Cinematheque.