Noir: when they first started making them, they didn’t even have a name for them.
Born from a literary movement popularized by Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, Raymond Chandler and dozens more, film noir — so-called by the French over a decade later — was part style, part substance, part state of mind. Nihilistic in tone and cynical in approach, noir comes at you like a slug from a .38 special, with form and content melding into a familiar and iconic style — often shot in high-contrast black and white and on location, because the filmmakers couldn’t afford the backlots Hollywood built for more glamorous affairs.
But noir is just as Hollywood as Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind; it just prefers the seedier side of things. And when those European émigrés fleeing Hitler’s Reich landed in Hollywood, they latched onto the downbeat truths and bracing cynicism of hardboiled novels. Out went the Hollywood ending and in came a darker state of mind, a state of mind many moviegoers returning home from the war shared. The world was ugly. They knew it, and not even Astaire and Rodgers could dance that ugliness away.
And so noir’s heyday traversed the 1940s through the ’50s, from war hot to war cold. Megalomaniacs were in power, the economy boomed for some but not for all, warriors returned home racked by the pain of what they had done “over there” and mankind suddenly had the power to destroy every living thing in an atomic war. A different time? Not so much.
That might explain why noir is currently celebrating a renaissance in both programming and appreciation. From TCM’s twice-a-week program, Noir Alley (from which the title of this article was cribbed) to the roving film festival, Noir City, both hosted and helmed by the “Czar of Noir,” Eddie Muller.
Since 2003, the Noir City film festival has become a haven for thousands of noiristas basking in the glow of the past while seeing a time that never feels that far away. And this year, for the first time, Noir City makes its way to the Centennial State for a weekend at the Alamo Drafthouse Littleton.
Playing March 23–25, Noir City Denver features six films — five of them on 35mm — that exemplify noir both in writing and in style; from genre staple The Prowler to the impossible-to-find-on-home-video British noir, Wicked As They Come; from climatic car chases down the streets of San Francisco (The Lineup) to climactic chases along the Hoover Dam (711 Ocean Drive); from Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas chewing the scenery (I Walk Alone) to Richard Basehart haunting the mean streets of Los Angeles (He Walked By Night), all six films screening Noir City Denver show precisely what noir is and what noir can be.
To sweeten the deal, Muller and famed crime novelist James Ellroy will be on hand to introduce each screening and provide concluding comments. The time is ripe for noir; join us, won’t you?
On the Bill: Noir City Denver. March 23–25, Alamo Drafthouse Littleton, 7301 S. Santa Fe Drive, Littleton, drafthouse.com/denver/program/