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How the French discovered America

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A few years after Hollywood filmmakers began making thrillers and crime melodramas, which often featured twisted plots, tough criminals, detectives and femme fatales, Nino Frank, a French film critic saw all the darkness coming out of Hollywood and called it “film noir.” In late January, I went to a screening at the packed 1,400-seat Castro Theatre in San Francisco, the site of the 10th annual Noir City Film Festival. The scene was as much off screen as on. Young women in '40s-style clothes, their lips prominently painted, dressed for the occasion. An organist played with bravado before the screening. During the intermission for the double feature, people paraded with drinks and browsed through film stills and posters being sold in the foyer. Everyone seemed to be there; I sat next to film director Phil Kaufman.

Film noir seems to be the one film genre that has found a vibrant new audience 60-odd years after the films were made. The funny thing is, film noir is not really a genre. It’s more a mood, a style and a sensibility. One of its famous femme fatales, Gloria Grahame, reflected this sense in these lines from In a Lonely Place:

             “I was born when you kissed me

I died when you left me

I lived a few weeks while you loved me.”

A much-discussed subject of academic studies, film noir is often seen as a reflection of post World-War II anxiety, depicting bleak, shadowy worlds of heartless cities, easy betrayals and transitory loves. These are seen as symbolic of paranoia of the early years of the Cold War.

Selections from San Francisco’s Noir City Film Festival are being shown in Chicago this week. One of the most famous is Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, based on a Mickey Spillane detective novel. The tough, arrogant detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) almost runs down a barefoot woman (Cloris Leachman), who is running away from a mental institution. They have an accident and she dies. When Hammer recovers, he lazily goes about uncovering the mystery of the dead woman. The trail eventually ends up at the Hollywood Athletic Club, where the prize motivating the film turns out to be a batch of raw nuclear material stolen from the Los Alamos nuclear test site.

Kiss Me Deadly – and other noir films – push at the extremities of these potboiler plots, inventing in the process a unique American film form. It’s film which focuses on physicality, substitutes layers of emotion for tawdry desire, and transforms the settings into existential landscapes in which the characters are alienated, sometimes desperate individuals, seeking a wholeness which is always elusive.

Noir City: CHICAGO plays at the Music Box Theater August 17 through 23. 

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