Noir is a French word, after all

For his autumn film series, Seattle Art Museum film curator Greg Olson observes a quarter-century-and-counting tradition of programming 10 classics of film noir. However, a year may be too long for some noiristes to wait for their fix, and so, in an admixture of compassion and sinister calculation, Olson has reserved spring this year for "Love Crimes: Sixty Years of French Film Noir."

Let the arguments begin! What, no dark-side-of-Jean-Renoir ("La Nuit du Carrefour," "La Bête Humaine" or "La Chienne," which Fritz Lang remade in America as "Scarlet Street")? No brooding, foggy sampling of Carné and Prévert ("Hotel du Nord," "Quai des Brumes," "Le Jour se lève"), whose late-'30s wallows in doomed romanticism intoxicated American arthouse audiences and exerted a strong influence on '40s American noir?

No "Le Corbeau," the 1943 film about a poison-pen misanthrope's reign of terror that took such a stinging view of Gallic human nature it got its director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, pegged as a collaborator after the war? Nothing from the philosopher-king of French screen gangsterism, Jean-Pierre Melville ("Le Samouraï," "Le Deuxième Souffle," "Le Cercle Rouge")? Sacrebleu!

But also, by all means, let the celebration begin. Thursday nights, April 7 through June 9, are going to be a banquet of perversity and dark genius in Plestcheeff Auditorium.

Jacques Becker, erstwhile assistant to Jean Renoir, remains little known and underappreciated on this side of the pond. The 1952 "Casque d'Or" (April 7, 7:30 p.m.) is his atmospheric tale of small-time but nonetheless violent criminals around the turn of the century, and the golden-haired beauty (Simone Signoret) they fought over. Town and country, land and water, the sensuous and the matter-of-fact coexist with unforced lucidity in this picture.

No dip into French noir would be definitive without at least one savoring of Jean Gabin in his 1930s prime, and "Pépé Le Moko" (April 14) fills that bill. The title character is a Parisian gangster who's both a legend in his own time and the prisoner of his criminal fiefdom, the Casbah district of Algiers. Director Julien Duvivier borrowed more than a little from Howard Hawks' gangland classic "Scarface," and Hollywood returned the favor by remaking Duvivier's picture the following year as a vehicle for Charles Boyer ("Casbah").

Like "Pépé Le Moko," "Quai des Orfèvres" - a.k.a. "Jenny Lamour" (April 21) - was restored a couple of years ago and given the Criterion treatment on DVD. Louis Jouvet is featured as an ace police detective closing the vise on a petty criminal (Bernard Blier) whose jealousy of showgirl wife Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair) has led to murder. A typically jaundiced view of human fallibility from director H.G. Clouzot.

OK, so there's no Melville in the batting order - "Touchez pas au Grisbi" (April 28), a second entry from Jacques Becker, covers some of the same ground, and beautifully. Jean Gabin, somewhat aged now (17 years post-"Pépé"), bestrides the film like an avuncular Colossus as an old-time gangster protecting his turf against younger, cruder interlopers such as Lino Ventura.

Jules Dassin has a persuasive arthouse sound to it, but the fact is that the gentleman born with that moniker hailed from Hartford, Conn., and made several classic noirs for Hollywood studios ("Brute Force," "The Naked City," "Thieves' Highway," "Night and the City") before fetching up in Europe courtesy of the blacklist. "Rififi" (May 5) decisively relaunched his career. It's a breathlessly well-made account of a caper robbery and the lethal fallout for the perpetrators.

"Diabolique" (May 12) offers a second helping of Clouzot, this one the psychological mystery-thriller that had audiences grabbing their armrests and/or each other at certain key moments, and critics reaching to Hitchcock for comparisons. Simone Signoret and the director's wife Vera costar.

"Diary of a Chambermaid" (May 19) may not fall strictly within the bounds of film noir, but then again, Luis Buñuel pictures don't fall within any bounds except those of his own fiercely fascinating film universe. Jeanne Moreau takes the title role of the newest addition to an overripe household in the French countryside around the time of the rise of fascism. A murder is not necessarily the most perverse thing to take place there.

François Truffaut's "Mississippi Mermaid" (May 26), a widescreen Technicolor vehicle for Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo set initially on the lush tropic isle of Réunion, also seems a departure from noir mode - until the heroine's duplicities and the hero's murderous ambivalence set in, sweeping the tale to Europe and one of the bleakest conclusions you'll ever witness. The source was a Cornell Woolrich novel, "Waltz into Darkness," more recently and ruinously adapted for Angelina Jolie as "Original Sin."

Claude Chabrol, initially a less-than-equal partner in the French New Wave, evolved into the most enduringly classical of the lot, largely through a remarkable cycle of psychological thrillers in the late '60s and early '70s (supremely, "La Femme Infidèle" and "Le Boucher"). "La Rupture" (June 2) is one of them, focusing on an ex-stripper (Stéphane Audran, the spectacular Mme. Chabrol) who happens to be the most resolute and pure-hearted mother any family-values advocate could wish for. The plot entails a nefarious scheme whereby the relatives of her dissolute ex-husband contrive to smear her reputation and take her child away from her.

After 50 some films Chabrol is still going strong ("La Cérémonie," "Merci pour le Chocolat"), and happily this series concludes with the Seattle première of one of his latest, "Flower of Evil" (June 9). Reportedly, the storyline embroils several generations of a provincial family in enough guilt, murder, and incestuous longing to give evil a good name. Can't wait.

Series tickets are recommended: $53 for SAM members, $60 others. Phone 654-3121. Tickets for individual films may be available at the box office, 100 University St., after 7 p.m.

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