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Bringing Film Noir to a Hard Boil

Dames, dupes and their fans gather for a second festival in Palm Springs

June 15, 2002|CLIFF ROTHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jane Russell talked about her famous cleavage, Rhonda Fleming cringed about her 1950s potboiler's being corny (it was) and pulp fiction legend Mickey Spillane held court (as usual). It was 110 degrees in the shade (literally) while screens were being scorched by scheming dames, hard-boiled cops and innocent dupes as the Palm Springs Film Noir Festival unfurled its second season last weekend.

This newest entry in the film noir festival circuit--now numbering five nationally--is testament, say noir enthusiasts, to the growing popularity of the genre. (And one that unites the baby boomers who coined the phrase "film noir" with the older generation who made the films.

"I hate the word 'genre,' scoffed the hard-boiled Spillane, who penned "Kiss Me Deadly" 50 years ago.

The Palm Springs festival joins a list that includes Los Angeles' American Cinematheque film noir series, in its fourth year; Santa Fe's Summer in the Dark Festival, in its fifth year; New York's Film Forum series, which began in the 1980s; and the granddaddy of them all, the Seattle Art Museum's annual film noir series, which is marking its 25th anniversary.

The term "film noir," French in origin and meaning "dark film," pertains to films made between, roughly, the mid-1940s and mid-1950s, set mostly at night, with dark shadows, dark motives and, often, murder. They're populated by femmes fatales, guileless men who are snared in their webs and gumshoes. It's "a world that is humorless, merciless, unforgiving," says Palm Springs festival co-director and contemporary noir author Art Lyons.

The great dames of noir films who are still alive and kicking, including Russell and Ann Savage, were happy to go to Palm Springs for another ride around the block, as Billy Wilder wrote for an exchange between Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in "Double Indemnity," one of the most famous bits of noir dialogue.

For the generation who made the films, the work wasn't film noir, it was just another picture; it was a gig, not a genre.

"What's film noir? You tell me what film noir is," actress Beverly Garland said, laughing, at the opening night bash at the Deck, a restaurant overlooking Palm Springs' main drag, Palm Canyon Drive. Garland, looking swell in a black pantsuit and a short blond cut, starred in "D.O.A.," a 1950 black-and-white mystery with a poisoned Edmond O'Brien searching for his killer.

Russell, who starred in noir potboilers for RKO, many of them with sneering costar Robert Mitchum, also couldn't come up with a tag. Savage, who starred in what was possibly the lowest-budget B-grade film noir of them all, "Detour," came closest: "filled with downers, out of luck." Savage reports she's still in demand because of the popularity of "Detour," made in 1945 and shown at the festival this week. "I have five or six interviews coming up. And one is on the table that I haven't gotten back to," says the actress, 81.

Film noir's heyday ended nearly half a century ago, and the mean age of the stars tops 75. Many of the films are difficult to find. The genre was largely based on crime, mystery or pulp fiction, the lowest pecking order on the Hollywood grid of the golden age, when women's pictures, musicals and prestige dramas ruled. Noir films were often low-budget independents, especially into the '50s. Rights are murky, and the films have not been preserved and are disintegrating or lost.

The festival's opening film was the rarely seen 1950 "His Kind of Woman," with Mitchum and Russell snarling and leering their way through the elaborately scripted mystery. "That doesn't exist on film anymore," says Lyons. "We went to Swank [Motion Pictures Inc.] first, who has the rights, but they didn't have the film. We traced the film to Warners, who listed it as being in their vaults at the UCLA Archives in 16-millimeter. They ran it and it disintegrated. So we had to splice together three videos to run it."

Spillane, decked out in a sports coat and porkpie hat, arrived opening night in a vintage 1920s car at the Camelot Theatre, the city's largest film auditorium. The 550 seats were sold out.

Spillane, who played his own character, Mike Hammer, in the 1963 "The Girl Hunters," hasn't lost his moxie, as they used to say. Palm Springs Life wanted to feature him on its cover flanked by some of the famous noir actresses. Spillane balked. "He didn't want to be seen with older women," says Craig Prater, the festival's co-director. Instead, the June issue features Spillane, 84, surrounded by a bevy of twentysomethings.

Fleming, a major philanthropist, could not be more different from her vamp screen persona. Sweet and demure, she was on the money about "Slightly Scarlet," a potboiler directed by Allan Dwan. "It's corny, isn't it? I haven't seen it in years," she told noir expert and author Eddie Muller during the question-answer session that followed the film last week. "I didn't know it was a comedy," she joked.

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