How dark was my alley

Flick-packed Film Noir fest "I Wake up Dreaming" returns to the Roxie

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Fog of noir: still from The Big Combo (1955)

arts@sfbg.com

FILM The word that comes to mind when thinking of Elliot Lavine's semiannual film noir programs at the Roxie is inexhaustible. With 30 films packed into 14 days, "I Wake up Dreaming" wisely takes a pass on questions of noir's quintessence in favor of open-ended research into the mutations and paroxysms of mid-century malaise.

There's no mistaking genuine masterpieces like The Big Combo (1955) and In a Lonely Place (1950), to say nothing of a still unfathomable crossover work like Detour (1945), but Lavine's series conspires to induce the genre delirium that first inspired the French critics to call a noir a noir. In spite of the preponderance of dead ends and blind alleys, there's always a trap door leading into the next movie. So this time around we get Shadow of Terror (1945) rather than Reign of Terror (1949), The Underworld Story (1950) instead of Underworld U.S.A. (1961), Killer's Kiss (1955) instead of The Killers (versions 1946 or 1964) or Kubrick's own follow-up The Killing (1956), Shoot to Kill (1947) instead of Born to Kill (1947). Chronologies matter less than interchangeability. You watch Lee Van Cleef's icy professional in opening night's The Big Combo (sparkling in a 35mm restoration by UCLA) return as a foaming killer in closing night's Guns, Girls, and Gangsters (1959). His kind never has time to develop a character on the margins of these already marginal films, but with repetition comes iconography.

John Alton's rhapsodic cinematography threads four of this year's selections (The Big Combo; 1948's Hollow Triumph; 1947's The Pretender; 1944's Storm Over Lisbon; and 1948's He Walked By Night). In the famous finale of Joseph H. Lewis' The Big Combo, which audaciously sets out to improve upon 1942's Casablanca's even more famous conclusion on the tarmac, the plot seems to exist primarily for the lighting. Cops emerge out of the fog and Jean Wallace's trophy girl freezes Richard Conte's sociopath in a spotlight — as pure an effect as anything in F.W. Murnau and in this case providing a perfect echo of an earlier scene of killing as silence rather than light.

Nicholas Ray and Val Lewton protégé Mark Robson lead Saturday's bill with message movies impugning society's guilt for a young man's sins. As with many of the era's social problem pictures, miles of speechifying script and awkward narrative frames make Knock on Any Door (1949) and Edge of Doom (1950) tough going if still interesting in the particulars. Knock on Any Door is timid next to Ray's subsequent study in juvenile delinquency, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), but there are premonitions of what's to come in those moments when the director fully engages his actors' bodies: when Humphrey Bogart's world-wary defense lawyer hauls Nick "Pretty Boy" Romano (John Derek) into a back alley to reclaim a debt, for instance, and in the passage when Romano's wife slumps against the stove after he blows for a robbery. You're so focused on her balletic movement to the floor that you hardly notice that she's reaching for the gas.

There's a similar fascination to Farley Granger performance as a loose cannon in Edge of Doom, lashing out at a world that doesn't forget about money even when you're trying to bury your poor mother. As in Ray's indelible They Live by Night (1949), Granger's palpable insecurity makes him a key figure for the melancholy shading of noir anxiety.

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