A Touch of Noir

double indemnity

I don’t know what it is about film noir, but it holds a special som’thin’ som’thin’ 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, the film noir short Under the Bridge of Fear, from Mackenzie Gray, received eight nominations at the Leo Awards. Gray, meanwhile, was inspired to create his short, in part, after reading the book Vancouver Noir: 1930-1960 by Diane Purvey and John Belshaw. Continuing this trend, The Cinematheque’s popular film noir summer season this August is also 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 the 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 FalconLauraMurder My Sweet, and Double Indemnity. The moment they arrived, with their squalid settings, cynical point of view and depraved characters, they produced moral outrage. 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 even identify with the murderer!

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 humans 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 on 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 expressionistic lighting, low camera angles, 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 nihilistic 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 of The Cinematheque, describes it as “dynamic, stylish, cool.” Released in 1950 as a B-movie, Gun Crazy developed a cult following and became a cornerstone of film noir. It is widely regarded as one of best gangster movies to come out of America. 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. Another film to top Sinclair’s list is Detective Story (1951) starring 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 more information about The Cinematheque’s film noir series and other screenings, visit thecinematheque.ca.

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