LACMA film series celebrates California noir
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Los Angeles is the city of sunshine and light, the city that’s like a day at the beach, the city that ... you get my drift. That line of chat may work with the suckers, the tourists and the rubes, but if you live here, you know there’s a corrosive darkness lurking below the surface in perpetually sunlit L.A., a spiritual malaise that makes this town rotten to the core.
Hardly the City of Angels, this is a place where bad people come to do worse things and live to tell the tale. Or so the crackerjack films featured in “The Sun Sets in the West: Mid-Century California Noir” would have you believe.
Starting Friday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Bing Theater, in conjunction will the museum’s “California Design, 1930-1965” exhibition, “California Noir” features a superb selection of 10 little-seen films that benefit greatly from the widescreen, 35mm treatment. Though the films are squeezed into four packed nights, it’s genuinely exciting to have a classic repertory series back at LACMA, especially one of such first-rate quality from beginning to end.
While many studio noirs were shot in Southern California but pretended to be set elsewhere, the films in this series (including one, “Experiment in Terror,” that is set in San Francisco) are situated in recognizable locales. It’s fascinating to see vanished neighborhoods such as Bunker Hill, old friends such as downtown’s Main Street and historical minutiae such as newspaper racks for long-gone papers like the Herald and the Examiner.
Because these are mostly noirs from the 1950s they tend as a group to be harder, edgier and just plain crazier than the postwar, 1940s standards. And no film fits that bill better than Robert Aldrich’s “Kiss Me Deadly,” which opens the series at 7:30 Friday night.
Working from an unsettling A.I. “Buzz” Bezzerides script loosely adapted from the Mickey Spillane potboiler, Aldrich’s 1955 film stands out from the crowd. Strident yet poetic, a highly stylized vision of breathtaking savagery and nuclear hell, this is film noir pushed to the limit and beyond, a borderline irrational version of an already extreme genre. And its controversial ending can never be forgotten, no matter how hard you try.
The great rarity of the series, at this point unavailable on domestic DVD, is Joseph Losey’s “M,” from 1951. If you’ve seen the film it is based on — Fritz Lang’s classic about a child murderer hunted by the criminal underground as well as the police — you know how audacious the thought of a remake is, but Losey handles it beautifully.
Photographed in and around downtown Los Angeles, with the finale shot in the iconic Bradbury Building, Losey’s “M” is little-known partially because the director was blacklisted soon after the film’s release. (An earlier Losey gem from the same year, the corrosive “The Prowler” starring Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes, is also part of the LACMA series.)
Also quite rare, so much so that the print LACMA is showing was lent by a private collector, is the unusual 1956 full-color noir “Slightly Scarlet,” adapted from James M. Cain’s “Love’s Lovely Counterfeit” and directed by the veteran Allan Dwan, whose career dates back to the early silents and who has some 400 credits to his name. Starring Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl as a pair of red-haired sisters who get mixed up in crime and punishment, it gets more deliciously delirious as it goes on.
Two other films also have considerable cult reputations. “Nightfall” was directed by cult helmer Jacques Tourneur from a novel by noir icon David Goodis and shot by Burnett Guffey. It stars Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft (in her first film role) in a particularly tricky plot that involves bank robbery, amnesia and sadistic criminals who say of their victims, “The tougher they are, the more fun they are.”
As unusual as they get, and much beloved by Martin Scorsese, is Irving Lerner’s lean, muscular and micro-budgeted “Murder by Contract.” Shot in eight days by the great Lucien Ballard, it stars Vince Edwards (pre-Dr. Ben Casey) as a nihilistic contract killer who spouts Nietzschean philosophy and sees his job as strictly business: “Instead of price-cutting, throat-cutting.” LACMA’s Bernardo Rondeau, who programmed the series, says this is “what an Antonioni drive-in feature may look like,” which is as good a description as any.
If star-driven vehicles are more your taste, “California Noir” has two tasty morsels, starting with the Burt Lancaster classic “Criss Cross,” a Robert Siodmak-directed heist drama that offers a stunning look at long-gone Bunker Hill as an added bonus.
Also on view is a bravura Joan Crawford vehicle with a great title, “The Damned Don’t Cry.” Crawford is introduced as Loran Hansen Forbes, “a socialite oil heiress from back East, the darling of cafe society” out in Desert Springs whose past, the movie reveals, is more than slightly sordid.
Holding down the fort for San Francisco is Blake Edwards’ “Experiment in Terror,” which has bank teller Lee Remick, yes, terrorized by a crazed criminal in some of S.F.’s most iconic locales. And speaking of iconic locales, Samuel Fuller’s visceral “The Crimson Kimono” opens with an unforgettable Los Angeles moment: stripper Sugar Torch (Gloria Pall) running down a neon-lighted Main Street in full costume, her blond hair flowing, before getting gunned down right in the middle of traffic. Noir doesn’t get any noirier than that, even in California.
-- Kenneth Turan