Film noir is the genre that isn't a genre. It's been called a style, an attitude, a movement, an era of Hollywood filmmaking, and it's all of these. But what I love best about filmnoir—apart from the thrill of a good hard-edged tale of hard-boiled characters in a hard-luck world—is that it's the only genre defined by its aesthetics. A film needs to hit a certain expressive quality to be considered a true noir. It's not just about a nocturnal world; noir is about shadows that swallow people up as they slip deeper into moral corruption and slashes of light that reach through the dark like claws. Poles of good and bad get complicated. Characters fumble through shades of gray and slip into pulp tragedy, driven by a feverish desperation that is doomed to get somebody killed.
"They're fun," is how Noir City Film Festival founder, programmer, and master of ceremonies Eddie Muller explains the attraction. "Noir has this reputation, deservedly so, for being the movement in which Hollywood really grew up. They were basically saying, 'Screw this happily ever after stuff; that's not the way life actually works. We're going to tell stories that are much more real about base human emotions, and we're going to do it in a very stylish way.' That does not mean that the films can't be tremendous fun. They're exhilarating!"
Seattle loves its noir. Seattle Art Museum's annual autumn Film Noir Series, at almost 30 years old, is the longest-running film-noir series in the world. And four years ago, Seattle welcomed the first road-show edition of Muller's San Francisco–based Noir City Film Festival (14 movies, all shown in 35 mm prints, in seven double bills over the course of a week). Unlike the Hollywood cliché, there is room in this town for both. They complement and supplement one another.
What I appreciate most about Noir City is that it favors rarities and rediscoveries over the canonized classics. Muller pairs The Postman Rings Twice, easily the glossiest studio noir ever made, with He Ran All the Way. Both feature John Garfield, but where he smolders with restrained lust for platinum blond siren Lana Turner in the former, he's all jittery paranoia as a small-time hood who shoots a cop and takes a working-class family hostage in the latter. In He Ran All the Way, director John Berry scuffs up the emotions until they're raw and frayed and then closes in, creating a pressure cooker that pushes everyone to the edge of unraveling. And like most of the films in the series, it's not on video.
According to Muller, the most exciting discovery of the festival is Fly-by-Night, an early Hollywood effort by Robert Siodmak, the émigré director who became one of noir's defining filmmakers. It went unseen for over 60 years before Muller tracked down a print. "It just knocked me out," he recalls upon first discovering the film. "It's Siodmak's B-movie version of The 39 Steps... very funny and charming and beautifully done. And I will continue to show that film every chance I get."
Fly-by-Night plays with another Siodmak rarity, Deported, but some of the other perfect pairs don't actually fall on the same night. The series opens on Friday with Pitfall, a startlingly, uncompromisingly adult drama of adultery in a middle-class marriage. Pitfall was produced by and stars Dick Powell, one of the most understated of noir's leading men, and directed by André De Toth, whose legacy of hard-edged dramas in all genres is still often overlooked. The film makes a matched set with Saturday's screening of Cry Danger, another Powell production that the Film Noir Foundation (the nonprofit group that produces Noir City) has just restored, and a bookend to Slattery's Hurricane, which closes the festival on Thursday. "I love the way André De Toth makes movies," gushes Muller. "He was a genius at finding some way to work within the confines of the production code and, boy, Slattery's Hurricane tests it at every turn." In the film-noir world of high style, low characters, and cheap lives, that is a high recommendation.
Tickets are $10 for each double feature or $50 for a full series pass ($35 for SIFF members). All screenings are at SIFF Cinema. Other festival events include "Intimate Fireside Chat with the Czar of Noir Eddie Muller" on Sun Feb 21 at 3:30 pm at the Sorrento Hotel (free and open to the public) and a "Film Noir Dinner with Eddie Muller" on Wed Feb 24 at 5:45 pm ($40). For more details and a complete schedule, visit www.siff.net.