Darkness Visible

From Welles' Touch of Evil to Lang's Ministry of Fear, the Castro fetes noir with 14 Universal classics

The continuous, nagging presence of film noir on the cultural landscape since the 1940s can't be explained by mere nostalgia; otherwise we'd be seeing regular retrospectives of other hoary genres like musicals and westerns, and modern directors would be looking for inspiration not just to Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, but also to Vincente Minnelli and John Ford. No, noir -- neo and otherwise -- is a bulletproof genre, its themes and images kept alive because they challenge many of America's ongoing myths: by-the-bootstrap upward mobility, cheery romance, the happy family, the rewards of work, and dogged conformity. For every fantasy of a poor boy becoming president, noir offers a chilling counterimage of the optimistic average Joe exploited by the system, betrayed by his friends, and ruined by a gorgeous moll. The lure of crime and illicit sex that is the flip side of the American Dream occupies the heart of the genre, and continues to enthrall audiences.

Noir has survived the vagaries of videotape, poor-quality 16mm dupes, and the reluctance of studios to see the profit potential in anything but today's "product." The Castro's resurrection of 14 canonical works over the next two weeks makes up for all those lousy prints of the past. For this, "resurrection" isn't just a fanciful term: Films like Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear and Robert Siodmak's Phantom Lady aren't available on video and haven't been screened properly since their first run during World War II. In 35mm, the cramped, seedy hotel rooms and claustrophobic bars of noir take on a kind of shoddy glory that parallels the sad state of the characters' lives. Close-ups of sweating, desperate men -- Burt Lancaster lying on his bed waiting to be killed in Siodmak's The Killers comes to mind -- assume a three-dimensional quality that's both exhilarating and disturbing. Painterly, expressionist effects dominate the genre, and no wonder given the number of German artists (Siodmak and Lang among them) who forged and perfected the genre. Typical examples are the chiaroscuro in Ministry of Fear, with its velvety blacks and pale, silvery whites, and the paranoid forced perspectives in Roy William Neill's Black Angel, which offer a visual correlative for the ruptures of the human psyche.

The pedigrees of this series are impeccable: noir stylists like Welles (Touch of Evil) and Siodmak (Phantom Lady, The Killers, Criss Cross) riffing on writers like Hammett (The Glass Key), Hemingway (The Killers), Cornell Woolrich (Black Angel), Graham Greene (This Gun for Hire, Ministry of Fear), Raymond Chandler via James Cain (Double Indemnity). With three exceptions from the "late classic noir" period (Blast of Silence, Cape Fear, Touch of Evil), these works emerged during and just after World War II, and are permeated by the atmosphere of a world in the throes of self-destruction. In some cases, the references are direct: Ministry of Fear's backdrop is a bleak, bombed-out landscape outside war-torn London; Frank Tuttle's This Gun for Hire has a vicious hit man named Raven (Alan Ladd) colliding with a group of war profiteers. But typical of the genre's ability to internalize the grimmer aspects of reality inside the characters, Raven is easily read as a bitter, emotionless double for the shellshocked soldiers who were the war's living casualties. In The Blue Dahlia, another Ladd film, he's a veteran accused of murder, in a typical motif of the man whose sacrifice for his country is quickly forgotten.

While noir is rightly associated with entrapment, dark interiors with no windows and no way out, it's also about the prosaic reality of the American urban landscape, with location shooting a hallmark. Robert Siodmak's Criss Cross was photographed in Los Angeles, with recognizable landmarks like Angel's Flight and the Union Station terminal, giving freshness and authenticity to the drama while reminding the characters (and the audience) that the "outside world," with its fresh air and freedom and mobility, is always beyond their grasp.

If male anxieties and fantasies of male empowerment galvanize the genre, it's the femmes fatales who keep us entranced, and this series has some of noir's best. Sometimes they assume a kind of metaphysical power that transcends their own death. In Black Angel, the "evil" Marvis Marlowe (Constance Dowling) is seen only briefly, but her control over the rest of the characters survives her and dominates the film. Other "treacherous" women -- Ava Gardner's Kitty Collins in The Killers, Yvonne De Carlo's Anna in Criss Cross, Barbara Stanwyck's Phyllis Diedrickson in Double Indemnity -- are in fact complex characters who suffer as much as their male counterparts, and die just as often. Both stray from prescribed roles -- the women abandoning domesticity, the men rejecting the workaday world -- and pay dearly for it. Noir's women can be read as proto-feminists in simply trying to seize for themselves the kind of power, sexual and economic, that men take for granted. But the noir universe is indifferent to the ambitions, criminal and otherwise, of both sexes; its smothering shadows and pervasive darkness spare neither.

 
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