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CLASSIC CINEMA

'Footsteps and Fog: British Film Noir'

A new UCLA film series explores the dark side of England, class issues, tough lorry drivers and all.

October 11, 2009|KENNETH TURAN | FILM CRITIC

Like fine wine, genre doesn't always travel securely across international boundaries. Italian director Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns were great fun, but they were hardly the same animal as the American version. So if "Footsteps and Fog: British Film Noir," the excellent new series being put on by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, sounds like a bit of a contradiction in terms, that's to be expected.

After all, the stereotypical Britain we know from endless "Masterpiece Theater" episodes -- a cozy place with lots of hedges and numerous cups of tea -- is a far cry from the dark end of the street. The country has a history of great mystery writers, (Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie), but at one point Americans -- as Raymond Chandler famously said of Dashiell Hammett -- took the genre "away from the upper classes, the weekend house party and the vicar's rose garden and gave it back to the people who are really good at it."

So, it's no surprise that the 10-film UCLA series, which runs Saturday through Oct. 26 at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, demonstrates that what New York's Film Forum called "Brit Noir" (when it ran a similar series) doesn't match up exactly with the classic Hollywood examples of the genre.

Taken overall, these films are as much keen psychological thrillers as they are classic noirs. And much more than American films, they often have a strong class struggle element, underlining the resentments against the aristocracy by working stiffs that led to the defeat of Winston Churchill's Conservatives by Labor's Clement Attlee in the 1945 general election.

British noirs also are heavily populated by eccentric characters, pointing up the truth of one police officer's statement that "if we started arresting queer birds, we'd take in half the country." And if the films on view here are any indication, truck drivers, for reasons unknown, were key Brit Noir protagonists.

While these differences are fascinating from an analytical point of view, on another level they don't matter much at all. What is finally important is that these are swell pictures, as involving as they are little seen, and any chance to view them on a big screen, no matter what rubric they're shown under, should be seized, no questions asked.

That is especially true of the best -- and best-known -- films in the series, which begin things Saturday: an irresistible double bill of Carol Reed's "The Third Man" and Jules Dassin's "Night and the City."

With a cast top-lined by Americans Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten and a setting in war-ravaged Vienna, "The Third Man" seems more international than British. Into this cesspool of casual amorality comes Cotten's bumbling, self-righteous American (screenwriter Graham Greene didn't think there were any other kind), who has naive notions of justice and righteousness plus a great deal of misplaced confidence in his ability to get to the bottom of things. "The Third Man" is the story of his unsentimental education, of the hard road he travels in the getting of wisdom, and it is indisputably one of the greatest films of its era.

The fast-paced "Night and the City," although set in London, also benefits from American involvement. This includes director Dassin, who made the film while in blacklist exile, and star Richard Widmark, who gives one of his trademark performances as a desperate, feckless loser who is always looking for an angle and finally thinks he's found one. London at night is beautifully photographed by Max Greene, and British actors Francis L. Sullivan and Googie Withers provide some of the bizarre local color.

Several other films in the series stand out in part because of strong acting by leading men. The most interesting of these is "On the Night of the Fire," a half-forgotten gem that stars a marvelous Ralph Richardson as a barber whose desire to better himself causes him to opportunistically steal money, with unhappy results; a bleak, corrosive look at working-class life.

Equally bleak is the outlook for John Mills' character in "The October Man." In a fine portrayal of mental instability and psychological frailty, Mills plays a man who feels so responsible for the accidental death of a young girl in his charge that he becomes suicidal. When a young woman at his boarding house ends up missing, suspicion falls on him; in his uncertain mental state, he can't be sure whether he did it.

Much more sure of himself is Trevor Howard as a sacked secret agent in "The Clouded Yellow." He takes a job in the country to catalog butterflies (hence the title), but soon enough, a stunning young woman (Jean Simmons) gets into trouble and the butterflies get shunted aside.

And then there are those films about trucks, or lorries as they are known in the U.K. "They Drive by Night" stars Emlyn Williams as an ex-con who flees London via long haul trucking after becoming a suspect in a murder, but it is Ernest Thesiger's student of abnormal psychology who steals the picture.

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