After going on the lam for a year, Noir City is back in Seattle, and this time it takes up residency at SIFF Cinema Egyptian (is there a movie house better suited to noir atmosphere?) and expands to 18 films in seven days (July 22–28).
Why does noir hold such a fascination in 2016? There's the style and energy and Damon-Runyon-gone-to-seed repartee of tough guys and brassy dames, of course. There's something cathartic about wallowing in the bad decisions and bad behavior of bad guys and bad dames scheming and cheating in the dark corners of the urban jungle, too. But pulp-fiction pleasures aside, the films are dangerous and daring and savvy thanks to a combination of desperation and pessimism, and the implied sex and violence that filmmakers snuck past the censors of the time. Even audiences too jaded for the quaint conventions of old Hollywood movies are captivated by noir portraits of existential dread and urban corruption. These disillusioned portraits of the American dream gone sour are, at their best, too jaded to believe their own studio-mandated happy endings. They may look nostalgic, but they sure feel like a reflection of our own anxious times.
The theme of Noir City 2016 is "Film Noir from A to B," and most of the schedule is programmed like a classic double feature: an "A" picture with the (relatively) big stars and studio budget accompanied by a shorter, cheaper "B" film. All are on 35 mm film. Opening night's magnificently titled I Wake Up Screaming, a 1941 crime picture with tough-guy peacock Victor Mature as a glib promoter and leggy glamour puss Betty Grable as a streetwise dame, is paired with Stranger on the Third Floor, a strange and surreal nightmare thriller that obscures its cheap back lots and minimal sets with the inky shadows of overtly expressionist lighting. Its setting is the paranoid twilight of a guilty mind as much as the dark streets and cheap apartments of the American city, and its style—startling for 1940—anticipates the prime years of film noir.
That pairing of the studio slick and the seedy cheap continues on Saturday with This Gun for Hire (1942), a handsome studio thriller with Alan Ladd in his breakout role as a coldly committed hit man and Veronica Lake and her peekaboo hairdo, and the 68-minute Dr. Broadway (1942), the debut of Anthony Mann (who made the edgiest noirs on the lowest budgets before turning his brutal sensibility to a series of memorable westerns). And the shadowy private-eye picture The Dark Corner (1946), with Lucille Ball as a plucky girl Friday to stiff but stalwart New York shamus Mark Stevens, makes the mean streets look downright glamorous next to The Guilty (1947), a thoroughly weird murder mystery with twin sisters (Bonita Granville playing both good girl and bad girl), shell-shocked vets, and creepy characters in a generic slum as abstract and alienated as a Tommy Wiseau nightmare. (This is a Film Noir Foundation restoration making its Seattle debut.)
One double feature even reverses the contrast: Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street (1945), with Edward G. Robinson as a sad-sack sap, Joan Bennett as a blasé hooker, and Dan Duryea as her weasel of a pimp, drops its stars into a studio city so seedy, you'll want to shower. It's paired with My Name Is Julia Ross (1945), a 65-minute psycho-thriller more elegantly crafted than many glossy studio pictures. Director Joseph H. Lewis made it an audition piece and made good on the promise with lovers-on-the-run masterpiece Gun Crazy (1950), a fury of sex, guns, and exhilarating style. It's the most explosive film of the series, stylistically and emotionally, with Peggy Cummins as a psychotic wildcat whose eyes light up whenever she shoots someone. The smoldering passion of the outlaw lovers burns through the screen as their doomed romance careens out of control down the highway to hell in one of the greatest noirs ever made.
The Reckless Moment (1949), a story of middle-class security upended by a quietly menacing blackmailer (James Mason), couldn't be more different, yet it too is knotted in anxiety and frustration. Director Max Ophuls casts a cloud over the sunny busyness and bustle of American life as fiercely protective suburban mother Joan Bennett (180 degrees from her Scarlet Street role) finds herself powerless in this society to secure a loan or get money without a husband at her side. An unheralded masterpiece of shadowy American melodrama, its message of complacency obliterated in one bad turn is as relevant today as it was in 1949.