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MOVIES | Cine File

Festival romances the dark side

Hollywood's annual ode to crime and cynicism returns this week with plenty of evil to love.

March 28, 2004|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

It was French critics-turned-filmmakers like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard who, in the 1950s, coined the term "film noir" for those great moody, cynical crime pictures of the 1940s and early '50s. These "New Wave" French filmmakers praised the work of such noir directors as John Huston, Otto Preminger, Nicholas Ray and John Farrow but often overlooked the novelists on whose work these films were based as well as the screenwriters.

These writers are getting their due at the American Cinematheque's sixth festival of film noir, "Side Streets and Back Alleys," which begins Thursday at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. The festival spotlights masters of crime fiction such as James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich, W.R. Burnett, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy B. Hughes and William P. McGivern.

"There is an ongoing debate if noir is about content or style," says film noir expert Eddie Muller, who programs the festival. "For those who believe that noir is about the style, then it started at a certain time in Hollywood and ended at a certain time in Hollywood. I don't necessarily agree with that. I think of noir in a much broader sense. I think it is only right to say that without the contribution of Cain and Hammett and Hughes and Cornell Woolrich, there really is nothing. There is no underpinning. They wrote the stories, and without the stories, there is nothing to shoot."

"These guys came from experience, which I don't think a lot of screenwriters today do," Muller says. "James M. Cain was a newspaperman. Raymond Chandler was, as everybody knows, an oil executive. He didn't start writing until his early 40s. Hammett worked for the Pinkertons. He was a detective. He served in World War I. They had a lot of experience and a lot more worldliness to draw on."

The series kicks off Thursday with a tribute to Cain: Billy Wilder's crackling, sexy 1944 adaptation of "Double Indemnity" and 1945's "Mildred Pierce," for which Joan Crawford won her Oscar. Friday evening's programming features the rarely seen 1942 adaptation of Hammett's hard-boiled examination of political corruption, "The Glass Key," as well as two classic Chandler stories: 1944's "Murder, My Sweet" and 1946's "The Blue Dahlia," for which Chandler penned the script.

Screening Saturday are two films based on Hughes' novels: the taut 1943 spy thriller "The Fallen Sparrow" with John Garfield and Muller's favorite film, 1950's "In a Lonely Place," directed by Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart in one of his most complex performances as a screenwriter accused of murder.

Other films include 1948's "I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes" (Saturday), which is so rare even Muller hasn't seen it, and 1941's "I Wake Up Screaming" (April 11) with the great Laird Cregar and Betty Grable.

Muller says film noir has endured because the movies "aren't sappy in any way like a lot of the old film genres that present the kind of silly, happily-ever-after world that no one accepts any longer. Film noir was sort of the beginning of the end of that."

He programs the festival to attract young audiences. "You do find a lot of this stuff coming out on DVD, but I am a purist. I don't think watching a movie on DVD in any way equates to watching it in a movie theater. My intention is really to show these old films for an entirely new generation who have never seen a black and white movie on a big screen. I am not preaching to the converted."


'Side Streets and Back Alleys'

When: Thursday through April 11

Where: Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

Price: $9 for general admission; $8 for seniors and students; $6 for Cinematheque members

Contact: (323) 466-3456 or go to


Thursday: "Double Indemnity," "Mildred Pierce," 7:30 p.m.

Friday: "The Glass Key," 7 p.m.; "Murder My Sweet," "The Blue Dahlia," 9 p.m.

Saturday: "The Fallen Sparrow," "In a Lonely Place," 5 p.m.; "The Chase," "I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes," 9:15 p.m.

April 4: "High Sierra," "Fallen Angel," 5 p.m.

April 9: "Mask of Dimitrios," 7 p.m.; "Raw Deal," "T-Men," 9:15 p.m.

April 10: "The Burglar," 5 p.m.; "Macao," "Decoy," 7:30 p.m.

April 11: "I Wake Up Screaming," "Shield for Murder," "Lonely Place" (a short), 4 p.m.

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