Film noir changed the rules when the genre became a Hollywood mainstay during World War II. Heroes no longer wore the white hat and were often as brutal as the villains. And the women who populated the film noir thrillers were femmes fatale who could wrap men around their little fingers and lead them down a slippery slope of crime and murder.
The black-and-white films were heavy on atmosphere, capturing the darker side of the mean streets of such cities as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. The dialogue bristled with cynicism, and the direction was mean and lean.
Though a lot of films from the golden age of Hollywood seem dated these days, these low-budget "B" pictures seem as fresh and vital as they were 60 to 70 years ago.
For the next three weeks, Noir City: The 16th Festival of Film Noir, presented by the American Cinematheque and the Film Noir Foundation at the Egyptian Theatre, will showcase some of the classics of the genre, a recently restored "lost" noir and several foreign masterpieces.
The festival opens Friday night with a 1949 rarity, "Too Late for Tears," starring noir icons Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea in a tale of a ruthless housewife who will do anything, including murder, to keep stolen money.
The film was a five-year restoration effort funded by the Film Noir Foundation and UCLA Film & Television Archive.
"It's our biggest restoration ever," said foundation founder and president Eddie Muller. "That film was just gone. It had appeared on DVDs in really horrible versions. So many of the restorations we have done have been of independently produced films." The reason they have vanished, Muller said, is because they were not made by a major studio.
Locating complete prints for the restoration turned up as many dead ends as a noir plot twist. "Every time we found an existing 35mm version of the film, it was somewhat damaged or incomplete," Muller said. "The titles would be missing or a section of the film was really damaged, and we could never quite patch it together."
Ultimately, UCLA located a complete duplicate negative in France. The restored "Too Late for Tears" premiered at the Film Noir Foundation's festival in San Francisco in January.
"It is pretty revelatory," Muller said. "This will be the fourth public screening of it, and the audience just goes nuts for it."
Though the festival features Los Angeles-centric films noir including the 1950 "Southside 1-1000," starring Don DeFore, and the 1951 "Roadblock," with noir favorite Charles McGraw, the programming has a distinct foreign flavor this year with Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1947 "Jenny Lamour," Jean-Pierre Melville's 1959 "Two Men in Manhattan" and Jules Dassin's influential 1955 "Rififi." The lineup also includes the 1943 "Ossessione," Italian director Luchino Visconti's adaptation of James M. Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice," which predated the Hollywood version by two years.
The foundation even funded a new print of a 1949 Argentine noir, "Hardly a Criminal," set in Buenos Aires and directed by Hugo Fregonese.
"The films are terrific," said film historian Alan K. Rode, who is a charter director of the Film Noir Foundation. "The philosophy behind this [programming] is that noir is a worldwide style or a movement. It is certainly more than a genre."
The reason for going international is not because of a dearth of U.S. films, Muller said.
"The impetus behind it was in the course of the past 16 years, as I have traveled around looking for missing films, I have familiarized myself with films in other countries that aren't particularly well known in the United States or in some cases haven't really screened here at all," he said.
The festival is also paying homage to the late actresses Joan Fontaine, Eleanor Parker and Audrey Totter, who were veterans of the noir genre.
"The audience in L.A. is so savvy about movie history and they love their stars," said Muller, who programmed the festival with Rode and the Cinematheque's Gwen Deglise.
"We're going to have Joan Fontaine in 'Born to Be Bad' and a very rare screening of a fascinating film, 'Ivy,'" Rode said.
"Eleanor Parker, who I got to know somewhat — she was a movie star who was also an actress — we are showing her Oscar-nominated performances in 'Caged' and 'Detective Story.'"
The festival is featuring two of Totter's best films, both from 1949: "Tension" and the rarity, "Alias Nick Beal," which is not available on DVD.
"It's a Faustian tale," Rode said of "Nick Beal." "Thomas Mitchell is just wonderful as the politician who makes the deal with the devil, played by Ray Milland. She's kind of the devil's apprentice."
Noir's signature style, Muller said, is one of the reasons why the genre still captivates audiences and filmmakers.
"I think for me something that American culture has retained is this sense of style from the mid-20th century," he said. "The style is reflected in these films in a way that still speaks to contemporary audiences. It's not necessarily nostalgia. It's not like we are longing for a better, nicer time. We know that time didn't really exist."
Noir City: The 16th Annual Festival of Film Noir
Where: American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: Friday to April 6