Dial N for Noir

"Darkness Visible: The Films of Anthony Mann and John Alton."

Much of film noir's enduring appeal can be traced to its anonymity. There's something seductive about the idea of little-known postwar pulp writers in seedy hotel rooms banging out these squalid sendups of everything wholesome and good, which Hollywood's B studios eagerly transformed into angstfests about working-class losers hounded by femmes fatales and implacable fate. But even a downbeat genre like noir has its superstars and, yes, its happy collaborations. The six films made by director Anthony Mann (1906-1967) and cinematographer John Alton (1901-1996) comprise, if not quite a holy grail, at least a magna carta of noir. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts honors these classics with "Darkness Visible: The Films of Anthony Mann and John Alton."

Alton's apprenticeship in German expressionist styles informs the seminal T-Men (1947). This nail-hard policierabout a Treasury Department investigation started a run of pseudo-documentary noirs, but it's most memorable for Alton's forced perspectives and suffocating shadow play. Mann's sadistic impulses are worked out at the expense of a pathetic stool pigeon slowly murdered in a steam bath.

The next year was their most productive. Raw Deal's B cast -- Dennis O'Keefe, Marsha Hunt, and Claire Trevor -- lends a gritty authenticity to this tale of an escaped con and his two molls. Theremin music, a monotone voice-over, and increasingly dim sources of light make this a key work in the noir canon. He Walked by Nightfeatures Richard Basehart as a coldblooded killer who predicts all those murderous cyborgs of the '70s and '80s; in one literally agonizing scene he meticulously removes a bullet from his flesh. And Reign of Terror was a novelty even for these experimentally minded guys -- it's the first film noir costume drama! This campy tale of French Revolution intrigue is the ultimate in noir excess, with whole rooms lit by a single candle, preposterously low angles, and fruity dialogue. (Robespierre: "Don't call me Max!")

A year later, in Border Incident, Mann and Alton turned to the great outdoors -- the Southwest -- for a grim story about exploited braceros. This film features one of noir's more grisly death scenes when a screaming George Murphy is hacked to death by the blades of a giant cultivator. (Murphy survived the film to become a U.S. senator from California.) Devil's Doorway(also 1950) moves the pair into western territory, but not to worry -- this still-timely tale of a Native American whose patriotism is rewarded by a seizure of his land is as dark as any of the "official" noirs.

"Darkness Visible" runs Friday nights, Dec. 3, 10, and 17, at 8 p.m. at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening Room, 701 Mission (at Third Street), S.F. All but He Walked by Night are 35mm archive prints. Admission

 
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