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Classic Hollywood: The academy presents a series of 1940s noir films

'Maltese Falcon,' 'Double Indemnity' and more.

May 05, 2010|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times

The iconic 1944 film noir "Double Indemnity" was memorable for many things: Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray's murderous lovers, Billy Wilder's sly and menacing direction and this tasty, sexy exchange between Walter Neff (MacMurray) and Phyllis (Stanwyck), penned by Wilder and the great mystery novelist Raymond Chandler, who adopted it from James M. Cain's pulp fiction.

Walter: "You'll be here too?"

Phyllis: "I guess so, I usually am."

Walter: "Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?"

Phyllis: "I wonder if I know what you mean."

Walter: "I wonder if you wonder."

The noir world was filled with gritty black-and-white images of shadowy streets — usually in Los Angeles — men with hats and trench coats and a cigarette dangling from their mouths, women with too much makeup, high heels and a penchant for causing weak-willed men to commit murder for them. Directors such as John Huston and Howard Hawks led audiences down a path of destruction and eroticism.

But if it weren't for the written word, these seminal films noir would have been dead in the water, as fresh and vibrant as yesterday's leftovers.

Take the bon mots between Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) in 1941's "The Maltese Falcon," adapted from the Dashiell Hammett classic by Huston.

Brigid: "I haven't lived a good life. I've been bad, worse than you could know."

Sam: "You know, that's good because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we'd never get anywhere."

Now the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is celebrating the screenwriters behind the genre with the "Oscar Noir: 1940s Writing Nominees From Hollywood's Dark Side" festival which begins Monday and continues Monday evenings through Aug. 30 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. Each of the noir films received Oscar nominations for either its screenplay or story.

Along with each of the films, the program will include a "noir" cartoon short and beginning May 24, a chapter in the 1941 serial "Captain Marvel" in a new 35-millimeter print.

"When people think about noir, they think about the cinematographer, the director or a particular actor like Richard Widmark or Barbara Stanwyck," says academy programmer Randy Haberkamp. "We can quote lines from all of these films, yet you never think what made them distinctive is that they are all well-written. Noir films don't waste a lot of time. They are not verbose. They are definitely economical. The characters are well drawn."

Haberkamp has enlisted some of Hollywood's top writers — several of whom are also directors — to introduce the films.

The festival opens on Monday evening with "The Maltese Falcon," the third film version of Hammett's famed crime novel. Lawrence Kasdan, who made his directorial debut with his screenplay for the 1981 noir, "Body Heat," will introduce the screening.

"Maltese Falcon," Kasdan says, was a "big influence for everything. It was the most amazing directorial debut. It's a model for a first film, economic and efficient and funny."

Two previous film versions of the story failed miserably with critics and audiences, but Huston had the right formula for success.

"It takes nothing away from Huston, but he took most of the dialogue from the book," Kasdan notes. "That takes a lot of skill, too. Part of the strength of his debut, is he knew what a great source material it was. He knew what to take from Hammett, but the direction is all Huston and that's what makes it memorable. "

Noir, Kasdan adds, was a "showcase for writers" because of the crackling dialogue. "It's so extravagant and funny and cynical and surprising. When I went to make my first movie that was part of what attracted me, the heightened stylized dialogue."

Nicholas Meyer ("Time After Time," "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan") was chosen to introduce "Double Indemnity," screening June 7.

"I think one of the reasons I picked 'Double indemnity' is that I was intrigued by the fact that the person who directed it and co-wrote it is not American," says Meyer of the Austrian-born Wilder.

"What the film managed to do in my way of things rather uncannily is to synthesize all of the elements of doomed eroticism," he says.

"I find it's very interesting that Billy Wilder is so sensitive and attuned to idiomatic terms of expressions and nuances and sort of double entendre, almost like Nabokov or Joseph Conrad, whose first language for each of them was not English — but were completely seduced by the rather colorful English language."

For the schedule and more information on the noir festival go to http://www.oscars.org.

susan.king@latimes.com

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