A Film Noir Retrospective at The Roxy Cinema

This month, The Roxy Cinema features a lineup of some of the greatest achievements in film noir, an edifice of artistic styles out of which some of the most important films in history have emerged. Its unflinching gaze into human psychology’s more shadowy impulses and libidinal drives was lavishly presented through innovations in visual and archetypal motifs. Cinematography and production design played a pivotal role with their disparities of light and shadow, peculiar geometries, and conspicuous wardrobes. Stylization in acting also evolved as familiar characterizations of the Dirty Cop, the Femme Fatale, and the High Society Conspirator exposed the sinister machinations beneath the orderly framework of society contrasting the sanitized ideals of 1940’s and 50’s America.

 


NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947) [35mm Print, Thursday 9/14 7:30pm; Friday 9/15 7:30pm]

In a seedy traveling carnival, Mademoiselle Zeena (Joan Blondell) and her heavy-drinking husband (Ian Kieth) possess a coveted code allowing them to simulate feats of mental prowess and extrasensory perception. Conman and carnival barker Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power) seduces Zeena into revealing her powerful secrets, binding them into a tenuous trap of tragedy and exploitation. The film combines forbidden fears of the supernatural with the ravenous obsession for fame, depicting the infectious tides of human frailty that trample over both the weak and the powerful. The film’s strong performances enhance its tragic tone, including Coleen Gray as Carlisle’s steadfast sidekick and Helen Walker as the conniving femme fatale.


THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) [Thursday 9/14 9:45pm; Saturday 9/16 4:00pm]

Through the superb screenwriting of James Agee (The African Queen) and performances from some of Hollywood’s hardest hitters, The Night of the Hunter is widely regarded as one of the greatest films in history, let alone the noir genre. Based on the true story of serial killer Harry Powers – renamed “Powell” in the film – killer of women and children in 1930’s Clarksville, Virginia. Robert Mitchum plays the role of the murderous self-anointed preacher with the words “Love” and “Hate” tattooed on the knuckles of either hand, hunting the fortune of widow Willa Harper (Shelly Winters). He woos the town with his charismatic religious platitudes and assumes a divine authority by condemning his victims as sinful women – darkly addressing themes of misogyny and religious conditioning. Shot in the style of German Expressionism with shadowy distortions and surrealist art direction, the film would come to influence directors of the importance of Lynch, Fassbinder, and Scorsese – despite its being the only film ever directed by reputed actor Charles Laughton.


TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) [Sunday 9/24 6:00pm]

Written, directed by and starring Orson Welles as the odious police captain Quinlan, Touch of Evil is another Hollywood classic to emerge from the era of film noir, and one of the genre’s most illustrious paragons. Charlton Heston is cast in the role of Mexican good-cop Ramon Vargas, with Janet Leigh as his distressed wife Susie. While investigating a car bombing, Vargas comes to suspect his superior Quinlan as planting evidence to aggrandize himself and maintain a cover of his nefarious activities. As Vargas uncovers Quinlan’s increasingly sordid layers of corruption, the captain summons his underworld legions to terrorize Suzie and maintain his empire. Marlene Dietrich makes a sultry appearance as the madam of a shady brothel among the film’s lurid depictions of underbelly spheres.


IN A LONELY PLACE  (1950) (35mm Print) [Thursday 9/28 8:00pm & 10:00pm]

Released in the same year as All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard, In a Lonely Place revives the theme of coveted celebrity introduced to noir by Nightmare Alley – raising it out of the carnival and into the motion picture industry itself. The moral depravity beneath Hollywood’s glamorous veneer was rich fodder for film noir and an early exercise in post-modernism. Humphrey Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a struggling screenwriter suspected in the murder of a nightclub coat check girl. When he develops a romance with aspiring actress Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) his career gets a kickstart and raises suspicions yet higher around conspiracy and murder. Both actors were lauded by critics for their performances, and director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause) earned chief status in Hollywood for his fluid engagement with the script and keen emphasis on character and emotion to fortify the plotline.


CRISS CROSS (1949) [Sunday 10/1 8:15pm]

Yvonne De Carlo stars as Anna, the quintessential femme fatale in this 1949 crime drama of innocence lured into decline. Burt Lancaster plays her former husband who follows her to Los Angeles to find himself embroiled in a love triangle with Dan Dureya, known for his role opposite Joan Bennett in Fritz Lang’s 1945 Noir Classic Scarlet Street, as mobster Slim Dundee. The film conducts familiar tropes of obsession and betrayal with exquisite photography executed by Franz Planer, seminal cinematographer since the earliest days of the silent era whose career spanned up toBreakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961 and beyond. Criss Cross is considered by scholars and critics as a steadfast emblem of noir and a must-see for fans of the genre.


SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957) [Saturday 9/30 4:00pm & 10:10pm]

This iconic New York film is most prominently praised for its screenplay co-written by luminary playwright Clifford Odets, and its cinematography by James Wong Howe – another veteran on the field whose work ranged from The Thin Man (1934) to The Molly Maguires (1970). Burt Lancaster plays newspaper mogul J.J. Hensecker whose influence thwarts the interests of press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) for his failure to break up a romance between Hensecker’s sister and an aspiring musician. Underlying themes of drug hysteria, incest, and McCarthyism are addressed through Hensecker’s ruthless attempts to destroy the youth he perceives as his rival. Falco finds himself an unwilling accomplice under the overwhelming influence of media over marketing. An exhilarating soundtrack of jazz themes underscores the whiplash dialogue and stunning montages.

 

Words by Micki Pellerano