When the American Cinematheque began its popular film noir festival, "Side Streets & Back Alleys," in 1999, several of the actors and moviemakers involved in the classic genre from the 1940s and '50s were still alive.
"It was so grand because we could bring them out as guests," says noir fest programmer, film historian and author Eddie Muller. "It was very gratifying to be able to meet these people."
Three years into the festival, Muller realized that a lot of the noir veterans were dying. "It's hard to find guests," he laments. "But the thing that's really gratifying is that the movies stand on their own -- they speak for these people. From the first time we did this in 1999 until now, clearly there has been a resurgence and interest in film noir, almost like a renaissance of sorts."
This year's festival, which kicks off Thursday at the Egyptian Theatre and April 8 at the Aero Theatre, has its share of well-known titles, such as the boxing dramas "Champion" and "The Harder They Fall" -- Muller will be introducing the boxing double bill. But the majority of the films are obscure, low-budget titles like William Castle's "Johnny Stool Pigeon," with noir icon Dan Duryea; Michael Gordon's "The Web"; and Gordon Douglas' "Between Midnight and Dawn." The British Film Institute has sent over the only existing prints of William Cameron Menzies' "The Whip Hand" and Edward Dmytryk's "The Hidden Room."
This year's guest is novelist-screenwriter Barry Gifford, who penned David Lynch's "Wild at Heart" and "Lost Highway." Gifford will appear April 13 at the Egyptian for a screening of "Lost Highway," Robert Blake's last feature, followed by one of Gifford's favorite noir films, "Dark Passage," with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
"We are responding to the marketing, so to speak," says Muller regarding this year's programming. "I always felt from the beginning I wanted this festival to pay tribute to the writers. This is a big thing with me because noir is not only a film thing but a literary genre as well."
Muller convinced the Cinematheque last year that the festival should focus on great noir writers such as Dorothy B. Hughes, Eric Ambler, Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich. "I actually got a lot of feedback from the audience," he says. "They liked it but said, 'You showed a lot of fairly well-known movies.' A real large segment of our hard-core audience wants to see the very hard-to-find, obscure stuff. So in this year's festival we are paying homage to that."
Muller says that many smaller studios made film noir because the genre itself is minimalist. "There is no spectacle to it at all. It's people locked in close rooms and on one city street. That is why there are so many 'B' film noirs. That dynamic in the business continues to this year. More up-and-coming filmmakers want to make a noir as their calling card to the business than any other kind of film because they love the look of it and the economics of it."
Muller decided to screen 1997's "Lost Highway" to convince noir fans that the genre didn't end in the 1950s.
"Its influence persists," he explains. "You can see it in the work of other filmmakers. I'm tired of people coming up to me and saying, 'I love these movies, and they should have kept making them like this.'
"It's all about the way it was back then. I know there are a lot of artists and filmmakers who are inspired by this stuff and are doing it in their own right. Barry is certainly one of these people, as is David Lynch. So I wanted to show something new and break the ice. We can't just live in the classic era."
'Side Streets & Back Alleys: The 7th Annual Festival of Film Noir'
Where: American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, and the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica
When: Thursday through April 13 at the Egyptian; April 8 through 24 at the Aero
Price: $6 to $9
Contact: (323) 466-FILM or www.americancinematheque.com
Thursday: "A Lady Without a Passport," "Singapore," 7:30 p.m.
Saturday: "Wicked as They Come," 6 p.m.; "The Whip Hand," "The Hidden Room," 8:15 p.m.
April 3: "Hollow Triumph," "Between Midnight and Dawn," 6 p.m.
April 7: "Champion," "The Harder They Fall," 7:30 p.m.
April 8: "The Web," 7 p.m.; "Border Incident," "Side Street," 9 p.m.
April 9: "The Dark Corner," "Lured," 5 p.m.; "Johnny Stool Pigeon," "Larceny," 9 p.m.
April 10: "Possessed," 4 p.m.; "The Man I Love," "Deep Valley," 6:30 p.m.
April 13: "Lost Highway," "Dark Passage," 7:15 p.m.
April 8: "Champion," "The Harder They Fall," 7:30 p.m.
April 9: "Wicked as They Come," 5 p.m.; "The Whip Hand," "The Hidden Room," 7:30 p.m.
April 10: "Hollow Triumph," 5:30 p.m.
April 13: "A Lady Without a Passport," "Singapore," 7:30 p.m.
April 14: "Lost Highway," "Sudden Fear," 7:30 p.m.
April 21: "Border Incident," "Side Street," 7:30 p.m.
April 22: "The Dark Corner," "Lured," 7:30 p.m.
April 23: "Possessed," 5 p.m.; "The Man I Love," "Deep Valley," 7:30 p.m.
April 24: "The Web," 4 p.m.; "Johnny Stool Pigeon," "Larceny," 6:30 p.m.