Legends of the fall - Film noir takes fall reign once at SAM

In an autumnal tradition - nay, ritual - now well embarked on its second quarter-century, Greg Olson is preparing to launch the fall season of film noir at the Seattle Art Museum.

Film noir was an exotic term when the first University of Washington class on it was offered 31 years ago - so exotic that the people who had made the classics of the form, in the 1940s and '50s, didn't even know they were doing so. The name, best translated as dark film, was retroactively applied by critics and historians to a cycle of bleak, doom-ridden yet often weirdly voluptuous American thrillers and melodramas that got up to speed in the late years of World War II ("Double Indemnity," "Laura," "Out of the Past") and reached apotheosis with "Kiss Me Deadly" and "Touch of Evil" in the mid-late '50s.

Critic Paul Schrader published the definitive paper on film noir back in 1972 and held that noir was over with. It wasn't a genre so much as a moment in history: film history, American history, world history . I think that's about right.

But it's also true that "film noir" as a term is bandied about all over the place these days, and applied to virtually any movies with cops, criminals, private eyes, psychopaths, night scenes, garish light and shadow, sexual perversity and/or creepy authority figures. And rest assured that everybody who makes these movies is thinking about film noir at some point in the process. As another critic observed, too many of these latterday artifacts are really "'designer noir': It's not a vision, it's attitude. You don't make it, you put it on and wear it." (Oh, wait, I said that.)

Olson's SAM noir series are rigorously programmed to serve up 10 specimens of the real McCoy, and serve them up, moreover, in their original 35mm gauge whenever possible. We can, and occasionally do, argue over whether a given title finally falls just outside the spiritual or stylistic boundaries of this non-genre. What doesn't vary is that all Olson's selections are worthy, and even the is-it-noir-or-only-gris? entries are illuminating in adjusting our perspective on this rich cinema heritage.

This fall's lineup, collectively titled "Dark Dreams: The Film Noir Cycle," steps off Sept. 30 with "Johnny Eager," a 1942 gangster picture directed by Mervyn LeRoy, who 12 years earlier had helmed "Little Caesar," and co-written by John Lee Mahin, a veteran of the original "Scarface." "Little Caesar" was a Warners artifact from creaky Vitaphone days; "Johnny Eager" is MGM glossy, with black-mustached but Pomona-bred Robert Taylor trading too much love chat with a breathy Lana Turner. The ironies and systematically doomed good intentions of the fallen hero point toward the world of noir, even if they aren't quite there yet. Van Heflin won a supporting-actor Oscar as Johnny's drunken-philosophe best friend.

The writing of Dashiell Hammett was a key precursor of noir, and the 1942 film of his weirdest novel, "The Glass Key" (Oct. 7), is so sharp, with such a surreal edge and shellshocked feel for corruption, I marvel at its continuing neglect by critics and historians. Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, a fluke hit pairing fresh from "This Gun for Hire," don't act so much as lend their spooky blond blankness to the enterprise while atrocities accumulate around them. This is true to the spirit and tone of Hammett's fictionmaking, which Jonathan Latimer's screenplay and Stuart Heisler's direction honor in spades (lower-case s).

"Nora Prentiss" (Oct. 14) is my favorite kind of noir series entry: one I haven't seen before. In his memoirs, director Vincent Sherman was full of praise for underrated leading lady Ann Sheridan, and a 1979 encyclopedia of film noir observes, "If there were a category of 'women's noir,' 'Nora Prentiss' should certainly rank at the top." Cinematography by James Wong Howe.

For whatever murky offscreen reasons, "He Walked by Night" (Oct. 21) is credited to the drab Alfred Werker but was in large measure directed by Anthony Mann, then knocking out one exemplary noir after another ("T-Men," "Raw Deal," "Border Incident") in collaboration with the master noir cameraman, John Alton. Their signature is writ large across the best sequences of this palpably unclean thriller about the police manhunt for a Los Angeles serial killer (Richard Basehart).

"Criss Cross" (Oct. 28) is a 1949 sort-of remake of director Robert Siodmak and star Burt Lancaster's 1946 hit "The Killers," with Yvonne De Carlo in for Ava Gardner and Dan Duryea in excelsis as the vengeful gang leader. The final reel is one of noir's most ineluctable descents into doom, and Duryea's last closeup - the last image in the film - will never leave you.

"Fourteen Hours" (Nov. 4), I would submit, is not really noir; its "Grand Hotel"-like proliferation of subplots around the linchpin of a man on a ledge threatening to jump (that Richard Basehart again!) are pitched too close to soap opera. It'll hold your attention, though, and you get to see Grace Kelly in her first screen role.

Jean-Luc Godard once judged Otto Preminger's 1953 "Angel Face" (Nov. 11) one of the 10 best American films. Jean Simmons supplies the impeccably innocent physiognomy in question. Robert Mitchum - noir fall guy par excellence - costars as an ambulance driver who succumbs to an heiress, though both of them recede from the foreground during an extended courtroom scene wherein Preminger demystifies any notion of truth-finding via the law.

"Split Second" (Nov. 18), a taut 1953 suspenser, relocates the dramatic premise of "The Petrified Forest" in an A-bomb test area in the desert. It's the premier directorial effort of Philip Marlowe player and mogul-to-be Dick Powell.

Fritz Lang counted "While the City Sleeps" (Dec. 2) among his several favorites from his own work. The preference seems a little odd, given the number of crackling-good pictures the German master made in Hollywood, and the production values reflect how close the RKO studio was in 1956 to giving up the ghost. Still, the moral grid is unmistakably Langian as a group of media types compete for career advantage while covering the search for a serial killer (John Barrymore Jr.). Big cast: Dana Andrews, Ida Lupino, George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, Howard Duff, Rhonda Fleming.

After extensive searching, Olson had to accept a 16mm print in order to show the postnoir, but unassailably perverse, "Pretty Poison" (Dec. 9), a 1968 critics' favorite costarring Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld. Noel Black directed, and for a time threatened to turn into somebody.

Series tickets ($53 SAM members, $60 general) went on sale yesterday. Act now - they sell out fast.

'Dark Dreams: The Film Noir Cycle,' 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Sept. 30-Dec. 9, Seattle Art Museum, 100 University St. 654-3100.[[In-content Ad]]