The door you shouldn’t have opened. The loot you should’ve put back. The dangerous curves you should’ve stopped stroking, right about the time her husband came home. The sure thing that ended with everyone dead, the money lost in the wind. The insurance man and the hot bored wife, the pimp and his 12-year-old piece, the best friend who plugged you and left you to die, but not before kissing your wife. This is their dirty town, a city of shadows hard and sharp as scissors: You’ll never slip through it without getting cut. And for the next five weeks, you live there.
Your walk on the wild side comes courtesy of the Nashville Film Noir Festival, a bland title for a movie series that is anything but. The first of what could become an annual event, modeled on the excellent Noir City fest currently underway in San Francisco, this showcase of 18 dark gems from the annals of hard-boiled cinema offers a joyride to hell in irresistibly bad company. As an introduction to the bleakest and least forgiving of film genres—one that still exerts a sweaty grip on the contemporary imagination—it’s a zig-zagging overview that favors associative connections over chronology.
If you’ve seen No Country for Old Men, you know noir even if you’ve never heard the word. The hero who crosses a line with a single misstep and spends the rest of his life paying for it. The implacable hellhound on his trail, unswayed by anything as pathetic as a plea for mercy, because if you’ve crossed his path, you clearly chose your fate. The jarring violence, the grimy locations, the laconic twangy dialogue and gallows humor, the absence of pity—all are inherited strands of noir’s DNA, descended from the kind of pure-bred pulp found in Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson and James M. Cain novels.
The term itself is French, used by French critic Nino Frank as early as 1946 to describe the “dark films” from Hollywood that deluged cinemas after the Vichy government’s wartime ban lifted. Their subject was crime—not the fussy parlor-game disorder of drawing-room mysteries, but real-life ruin with plausibly grubby motives. Their look was all angular shadows and slashing black-and-white; their protagonists were either slaves to temptation and lust, or tarnished knights honor-bound to clean up their mess. Hard-edged in style, hard-headed in content and their resolute lack of sentiment, these movies were existentialist to the core. You made a bad choice, and you lived—or more often, died—by the consequences.
Two movies from that first wave—John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (Feb. 16-18) and Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (Feb. 19-21)—set the perimeters of the genre. The former features an agent of justice who’s anything but an angel. Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade may adhere to a moral code, but he’s also a cold-blooded creep who delights in bitch-slapping weaklings. The latter sets up the quintessential film-noir anti-hero, Fred MacMurray’s conniving insurance agent Walter Neff, the dick-led sap whose libido and greed overrule his common sense just long enough to seal his doom. Since the instrument of his downfall is Barbara Stanwyck, the most brazenly erotic of Golden Age stars, you can feel, along with him, the pull of the void.
That phrase sums up the allure of noir: the chance to experience, vicariously, how it would feel to act on the impulses we’ve been wisely conditioned to ignore. It also explains noir’s adaptability over the years: from the dark-city convolutions of Fritz Lang’s rock-hard 1953 The Big Heat (March 1-3), with straight-arrow cop Glenn Ford warped by obsession into an inhuman avenger, to the genre’s darkness-at-noon resurgence in the 1970s in the immediate wake of Watergate. “Most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of...anything!” exults John Huston’s monstrous robber baron Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s 1974 Chinatown (Feb. 22-23 & 25), shot in the kind of sunlight that fries ants under a magnifying glass.
Oddly, Polanski’s 1930s period piece seems less dated than Robert Altman’s modern-day 1973 The Long Goodbye (Feb. 5-8), which updates Raymond Chandler to the Los Angeles of yoga, psychobabble and free love. And neither seems as startlingly contemporary as Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (Feb. 11-13) or John Boorman’s Point Blank (Feb. 22-3 & 25)—movies whose unapologetic sangfroid seems to wrench the world out of orbit.
In his 1955 thriller, Aldrich turns Mickey Spillane’s skull-buster Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) into a meat missile bent on destroying the world, which he manages in the mother of all apocalyptic finishes. (The movie earns its shout-outs in Pulp Fiction and Repo Man.) Boorman, meanwhile, fashions the same Richard Stark/Donald E. Westlake novel that inspired the Mel Gibson vehicle Payback into a jagged modernist nightmare, as a zombified Lee Marvin won’t let little things like time and space impede him from wiping out his double-crossing syndicate bosses. The scene in which Marvin sets a collision course for his two-timing wife, his footsteps a metronome of unstoppable vengeance on the soundtrack, remains the ne plus ultra of brute cool.If programming the series out of chronological order dislocates the movies from their historical context—a result mostly of print availability—it allows adventurous moviegoers to form their own delirious free-ranging connections. Compare Elliott Gould’s nebbishy Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye to Bogie’s suave doppelganger in the equally spoofy The Big Sleep (Feb. 16-18), or watch Sterling Hayden morph from the hulking mastermind of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (Feb. 8-10) to The Long Goodbye’s wizened neurotic. See the great Robert Mitchum accept the bust hand fate deals him with sleepy grace in one of the greatest of all noirs, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (Feb. 2-3), as opposed to Bogart’s jittery downfall in Nicholas Ray’s devastating In a Lonely Place (Feb. 12-14). Ironically, the thing that’s great about this fabulous series is the very antithesis of film noir—you can’t go wrong.
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