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Through a Lens Darkly, Indeed

Hop Series on Film Noir Includes Some Lesser-Known Classics

  • Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway appear in a scene from Chinatown.

    Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway appear in a scene from Chinatown.

  • Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck starred in Double Indemnity.

    Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck starred in Double Indemnity.

  • John Dall and Peggy Cummins appear in a scene from "Gun Crazy," a film noir in which they play a pair of bank robbers.

    John Dall and Peggy Cummins appear in a scene from "Gun Crazy," a film noir in which they play a pair of bank robbers.

  • Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway appear in a scene from Chinatown.
  • Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck starred in Double Indemnity.
  • John Dall and Peggy Cummins appear in a scene from "Gun Crazy," a film noir in which they play a pair of bank robbers.

There are eight very good reasons to see “Film Noir: Embrace the Dark,” the summer movie series at the Hopkins Center that continues through Aug. 17, and they are: The Maltese Falcon , Double Indemnity , Detour , Scarlet Street , The Killers , Raw Deal , Gun Crazy and Chinatown.

Noir dates from, roughly, the end of World War II through the 1950s. Only the Western rivals noir for sheer output, and for the myriad ways in which they explore American violence, the inescapable dark strain running through our history.

There are hundreds of noir films, some famous, some obscure, some shot on big budgets with big stars (The Maltese Falcon) and others shot on a down-and-dirty budget with no stars (Detour), but they all share an attitude of weary fatalism and brooding pessimism.

Sometimes that can become its own cliche, as numerous parodies of noir tropes have proven: The tough guy voiceover, the hardbitten dame, the chiaroscuro black-and-white cinematography, the sociopathic crime boss with a predilection for perversion, and, often, the death of our anti-hero at film’s end.

American movies are often accused of a mindless, cornball optimism, which strikes me as a lazy stereotype. But there’s no doubt that the noir genre, which came of age, not coincidentally, after World War II, is a rich vein of American culture because it stands in stark contrast to the determined apple-polishing of such American myths as equality for all and meritocracy.

America emerged from the war as a superpower, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that by looking at the country through the post-war noir lens, which seems to speak to some kind of nationwide post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the Great Depression and the war, before PTSD even entered the national currency.

The noir male is an anxious, wary anti-hero, a man on the run from vengeful bosses and even more vengeful women, and above all, from themselves. America is a panorama of dark, murky cityscapes, where a loaded gun waits down a lonely alley; and lonely highways staked out by crazy lost souls in search of the elusive big score that’s going to free them from their go-nowhere lives.

You have the sense, also, of filmmakers liberated from big studio strictures about how to write and direct a movie, which is why so many noir movies seem livelier and less conventional, less stuffy and turgid than the “important” big studio pictures.

There’s the prevalence of location shooting in cities and countryside, scenes that feel improvised, and the acknowledgment that women’s roles have changed. In noir, women aren’t only driving the cars (which d idn ’t happen that much in American movies before World War II), t hey drive the narrative.

There’s been argument about the misogyny of noir, and that’s certainly an element, but I’m agnostic on this question. The women in these movies are often more fascinating than the men, with deeper characterizations: look at the preponderance of current Hollywood fare and you’ll see the difference.

You can’t go wrong with any of the films in this series. You can’t deny the icy charisma of Barbara Stanwyck as the predatory wife and Fred MacMurray as the lazy opportunist in Billy Wilder’s 1945 film Double Indemnity. There’s the crazy-in-lust pairing of John Dall and Peggy Cummins as bank robbers in Joseph Lewis’ antic Gun Crazy, released in 1950, 17 years before Bonnie and Clyde.

But if there’s one movie that deserves to be seen precisely because it’s less known than Double Indemnity, Chinatown or The Maltese Falcon, it’s the 1948 movie Raw Deal, which is directed by one of my favorites, the versatile, brilliant Anthony Mann, who made, as far as I can tell, not a single bad movie.

Raw Deal starts as a prison break-out movie, throws in a love triangle, a classic psychopathic crime lord, more than one shoot-out, and above all, knock-out camera work and lighting by John Alton, Mann’s frequent collaborator and one of the greatest of American cinematographers.

It starts with another rarity in American film: a voiceover by a woman. Pat, played by Claire Trevor, sets up the story of her guy Joe, who’s sitting in prison as the fall guy for a crime he didn’t commit. Joe, played by Dennis O’Keefe, with his Everyman good looks, is also visited in prison by a social worker, Ann, who wants to reform him.

And then there’s a pre-Perry Mason Raymond Burr, memorable as a portly, petulant, babyfaced mob boss who also happens to be a vicious pyromaniac, and who figures in one of noir’s more shocking scenes, which happens about a third of the way through the picture.

The movie has, as do so many noirs, a stellar supporting cast of such character actors as John Ireland, Regis Toomey and Whit Bissell. Claire Trevor, a regular in the noir canon, is particularly affecting as a woman who knows she isn’t secure in her lover’s affections. But the real star is Alton’s photography, which draws more shades and subtleties out of black and white than you would think possible.

The camera work is so fluid and the nuances of lighting so sophisticated that his photography becomes its own character, an omniscient commentator on the action and the characters. It’s amazing work.

This Sunday the Dartmouth Film Society screens the immortal The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. Double Indemnity, another not-to-be-missed film screens on July 6; Raw Deal on Sunday, Aug. 3; and Gun Crazy on Aug. 10. For the full schedule and tickets, go to hop.dartmouth.edu/Online/dfs or call the box office at 603-646-2422.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.