The American film-noir flicks of the 1940s and 1950s don't make a grand entrance. They come up the back staircase, with a cigarette in hand and a no-good dame on the brain.
"That's what America does best--this unpretentious stuff, stuff that's done quickly, with real wit and real professional craftsmanship," says John Ewing, director of the Cleveland Cinematheque, where the Universal Noir series opens this weekend.
Noir films were the existential alternative to the infectious glee and home cooking that supposedly defined the post-war era, an ice-water antidote to director Cecil B. DeMille's live elephants and casts of thousands. They also were made with Hollywood's chump change, with the sets recycled and the actors--Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, and Lana Turner among them--not yet stars.
But while Hollywood may have regarded this landscape of shadows and alleys as a way to make a quick buck, history tells another story. "Look at the movies that won the Oscars back then," advises Ewing. "Who watches Gentleman's Agreement these days, or The Best Years of Our Lives?"
Universal Noir offers ten newly restored films from the vaults of Universal Pictures. It opens with The Glass Key, a retelling of a Dashiell Hammett tale about a politician (Brian Donlevy) who takes the heat for a murder rather than lose the woman he loves. The plot's full of holes, but Alan Ladd's cool demeanor and Veronica Lake's arched eyebrows bridge the gaps.
The standout in the series is Double Indemnity, which boasts a well-crafted story to match its style. Scripted by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler from a James M. Cain novel, the film stars Fred MacMurray as a happy-go-unlucky insurance salesman duped by a scheming Barbara Stanwyck. Double Indemnity placed 38th on the American Film Institute's recent list of the top 100 American films of all time.
"It's certainly one of the high points of the genre, one of the darkest and wittiest," says Ewing. "Although I have gripes with many films on the [AFI] list, this is not one of them."
The series opens Friday at the Cinematheque with Noir Dress Up Night. Grandpa's rain slicker and a surly manner get you in for four bucks.
Admission to all films is $6. For a complete series schedule, please see this week's Film Repertory listings on page 23.