Film noir: Tales from the dark side

Screenings: When they are bad, they are very, very bad, these hard-edged men and their slinky femmes.

May 06, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Hard-edged guys who are a lot more gullible than they think. Slinky, sharp-tongued femme fatales who live to prey on that vulnerability. And action that, for some reason, almost always takes place at night.

Think Barbara Stanwyck toying with hapless insurance salesman Fred MacMurray in "Double Indemnity," Ava Gardner shredding Burt Lancaster's heart in "The Killers," Veronica Lake instilling a fatal dose of humanity into Alan Ladd in "This Gun For Hire."

Such are the essential elements of film noir, a uniquely American cinematic art form (although the French coined the term, which translates to "dark cinema") that flourished from roughly the mid-1940s to the early 1950s.

Displaying a proudly fatalistic view of human nature -- happy endings are not the stuff of film noir -- they feature people doing wrong by each other, frequently while they are embroiled in an illicit love affair. The byplay of shadow and light is vital to the genre, one reason the films are almost impossible to replicate in color.

Beginning tonight at the Charles, 14 noir classics, all lovingly restored by Universal Studios, are being screened. See them and know why, even more than four decades since their heyday, Hollywood writers and directors have never stopped trying to duplicate the formula.

Perhaps you'll also see why they rarely succeed and come to understand why saying a movie is a modern-day film noir is to pay it high praise indeed.

As with any art form, it's hard to say precisely when film noir began. Some say director John Huston's 1941 adaptation of Raymond Chandler's "The Maltese Falcon" invented the genre and set the standard while others give credit to Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" (1944).

Regardless of who started it, what followed was a set of films filled with crisp dialogue, seedy characters and situations that are a pleasure to watch. The genre also marked a happy marriage of book and movie, as many of the best noir films were adaptations of works by such great American writers as Chandler, James M. Cain and Ernest Hemingway.

The Charles' schedule:

Tonight: "Double Indemnity" (7: 10 p.m.), which offered Stanwyck her most defining role (and will shock anyone who can't think of MacMurray in terms beyond "My Three Sons"), and Siodmak's "Criss Cross" (1948, 9: 10 p.m.), with Yvonne de Carlo as the fatal femme and Burt Lancaster as her unlucky victim.

Monday: "Double Indemnity" (7: 10 p.m.) and "Black Angel" (1946, 9: 10 p.m.), with Dan Duryea searching for his wife's killer (could it be Peter Lorre?).

May 13: "Cape Fear" (1961, 7: 15 p.m.), with Robert Mitchum seeking revenge on Gregory Peck, the prosecutor who put him in jail, and "The Blue Dahlia" (1946, 9: 15 p.m.), an original screenplay from Chandler that marked the third teaming of Ladd and Lake.

May 17: "Cape Fear" (7: 10 p.m.) and Lang's "Ministry of Fear" (1944, 9: 20 p.m.), with Ray Milland buying a cake that makes him the target of Nazi spies.

May 20: "Touch of Evil" (1958, 7: 10 p.m.), Orson Welles' stunning look at corruption south of the border, and "This Gun For Hire" (1942, 9: 15 p.m.), with Ladd as the killer without a soul and Lake as the woman determined to give him one.

May 24: "Touch of Evil" (7: 10 p.m.) and "Blast of Silence" (1960, 9: 15 p.m.), with director Allen Baron as Frank Bono, a killer who makes a big mistake.

May 27: "The Killers" (1946, 7: 10 p.m.), with Lancaster in his film debut, and "The Glass Key" (1942, 9: 15 p.m.), with Ladd trying to clear his boss' name and Lake as his most beguiling distraction.

May 31: "The Killers" (7: 10 p.m.) and "The Big Clock" (1948, 9: 15 p.m.), with Charles Laughton as a murderous newspaper publisher who assigns Ray Milland to solve the crime.

June 3: "Phantom Lady" (1944, 7: 10 p.m.), with Ella Raines and Alan Curtis trying to find the woman who could save Curtis from a murder rap, and "You and Me" (1938, 9 p.m.), a Fritz Lang early-day noir, with music by Kurt Weill.

Pub Date: 5/06/99

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