Now that the holidays are over, and we’ve all had our fill of our loving families, the spirit of giving, and good tidings of cheer, pour a little acid back into your soul this weekend with the Crest Theater’s Noir Nights film festival. Running Friday (1/15) and Saturday (1/16) evening, Noir Nights features five coal black classics from the wrong side of the screen, spanning thirteen years and including films from such masters as Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick. You can show up early on Friday to attend a speakeasy soiree in noir-inspired wardrobe, or slump into the theater and sit alone in the back row, contemplating the cold, hard emptiness of life. Either way, a great time will be had by all.
Not only is there not a bad movie in the bunch, but Noir Nights will be showing three masterpieces (The Killing, Touch of Evil, and Out of the Past), a jewel of the 1940s studio system (Mildred Pierce), and a sorely under-appreciated gem (Leave Her to Heaven). In anticipation of the big weekend, here are some thoughts about the films, listed in the order in which they will be screened:
Touch of Evil (1958; directed by Orson Welles)
Screening: Friday, 7:00 pm
Just about as perfect as a film gets, Orson Welles’ masterpiece about a Mexican border detective facing off against a dirty American cop remains as inventive, bold and highly charged as ever. Universal notoriously forced Welles to cast Charlton Heston as the Mexican hero, a decision easy to mock but oddly perfect in execution. The paper-thin bravado and unflinching righteousness he brings to this (and every other) role is constantly subverted by the complexity of ostensibly supporting characters, including the American cop played by Welles. This allows Welles the director to transform a simple morality play into a maddeningly complex morass of corruption, deceit, violence, and above all, humanity. It is some kind of film.
Mildred Pierce (1945; directed by Michael Curtiz)
Screening: Friday, 9:15 pm (35mm print)
Todd Haynes’ recent HBO miniseries adaptation of James M. Cain’s trudge through the muddy swamp of psycho-sexual neurosis may be more dazzling in its visuals, more lovingly cradled, and more faithful to the original story, but it is expert craftsman Michael Curtiz who made the more brash, tight and crazed version of Mildred Pierce. It’s a perfect film for Curtiz, a multifaceted director often cited by anti-auteur theorists for his ability to excel in different genres, whose professionalism and assured visuals bring balance to a fractured script composed by no less than eight (mostly uncredited) writers, including William Faulkner and Albert Maltz. There is definitely a sense that no one quite knew how to adapt the short but expansive novel, and the end result bares little more than a mild resemblance to the original story, but the fractured script actually enhances the illustration of a woman whose psyche is slowly eroding. Joan Crawford was rarely better than as the sympathetic title character, a woman driven in equal measure toward success and devastation.
It may be true that some have greatness thrust upon them, but Stanley Kubrick’s seminal heist film centers on a group of people who, despite talent, precision and their best laid plans, are doomed to senseless defeat. Fate’s fickle hand is almost always at play in film noir, but rarely is it more crushing than in The Killing. Kubrick’s seminal gangster pic infuses a slew of elements that would become hallmarks of his career: an intense visual framework, intermittent explosions of graphic violence, and absurd, discomfiting touches that fall somewhere between funny and scary, such as a gang wearing clown masks during a robbery, or Timothy Carey doing anything. But the heart of the film lies in the great Sterling Hayden, both in his icily vulnerable performance and in Kubrick’s clear identification with his character: a somber, calculating genius, and a perfectionist undone only by the things he can’t control.
Out of the Past (1947; Jacques Tourneur)
Screening: Saturday, 7:00 pm
The most purely noir film playing in the festival, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past is a spectacular buffet of high-contrast lighting, low angles, smoke-filled rooms, haunting close-ups and crisp, cutting dialogue that will make you swoon into a slow dance of existential crisis (“Is there a way to win?” one character asks; another replies, “There’s a way to lose more slowly.”). Tourneur handles the film with surprising sophistication, combining B-movie aesthetics with prestige picture gravitas. The actors all turn in fantastic performances, but few films have ever utilized the faces of their actors to better effect. In Tourneur’s hands, angst fades into resignation along with Robert Mitchum’s deadpan face; Jane Greer’s button-cute face summons demons of the past; and all the evil of the world is condensed into the tip of Kirk Douglas’ chin. The result is a stark, beautiful and deceptively personal picture that’s always been hard for me to shake.
Although it has never quite achieved the same notoriety as its counterparts, Leave Her to Heaven is every bit as scalding and ambitious as any film on this list. If you thought high-contrast black-and-white created an eerie atmosphere, just wait until you see humanity’s capacity for evil exposed in bright, lush Technicolor. Part melodrama, part noir, John Stahl’s vicious love story plays like a Douglas Sirk adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich story, featuring one of the most wicked femmes in noir and one of the most haunting murders in film. Gene Tierney’s mesmerizing performance is the highlight of the film, and it is a testament to her skill and Stahl’s direction that we always sense something deeper than simple menace in her character. She may seem like a crazy woman, but on the inside, she’s really just a crazy girl.