A woman in nothing but a trenchcoat dashes onto a midnight roadway, almost getting smacked by the Jag of the P.I. who makes the mistake of picking her up. An embittered former G.I. turns up in a Mexican village determined to deal with the gangster who had his brother-in-arms killed.
And once again an audience turns up in the thick of the Mission, at a theater that has specialized in vaudeville, porno, and Russian-language features, a landmark distinguished by hulking shadows and the persistent chk-chk-chk of one of those classic projectors George Lucas wants to kill. There, they relish life and death in black and white, the hard knocks suffered by the hard-boiled, the choice rarities and curios assembled — in double features! — by programmer Elliot Lavine for this year's film noir festival at the Roxie.
This time, Lavine has dug up two weeks of dark jewels: hard-to-find Hollywood noirs mostly from the 1940s and '50s and offering a parade of last century's finest amnesiacs, paranoids, private dicks, femmes fatales, and non-Anglo second bananas who tend to get beaten, tortured, or killed to prove a point to the square-jawed hero. In the case of poor Pancho (Thomas Gomez) from 1947's great Ride the Pink Horse (Saturday, May 21), one of these fates hits while kids riding a carousel try to look away.
There's Vincent Price in 1947's likable The Web (Sunday, May 22) as a millionaire whose soul seems gentle at first, but coarsens with each reel. There's Burgess Meredith in 1942's Street of Chance (Saturday, May 14), who gets conked on the noggin by falling debris in New York City and awakens to find what movies assure us happens in such situations: His life is not at all what he thought it was.
Then there's Adrienne Barrett as the troubled young woman who haunts the Freud-noir dreamscapes of 1955's low-budget jaw-dropper, Dementia (Friday, May 13), quite simply one of the damnedest films you will ever see. Writer and director John Parker whipped up something like an hour-long musical number stripped of songs and dance but alive with dark, syncopated movement and cutting. (That's cutting both of the crisp one-shot-to-the-next variety behind the camera and the switchblade-through-flesh variety before it.)
Without a lick of dialogue or plot, Parker follows Barrett through a 57-minute freakout that suggests something like the paranoia of Repulsion filmed like Orson Welles' Touch of Evil and staged like the ballet sequence in Oklahoma! Steeped in gorgeous noir shadows, it's a psychosexual nightmare chock-a-block with pimps, ghosts, and violence that still shocks 55 years later. It's such a doozy that the New York board of censors refused to approve it for two full years, right up until a second distributor bought it and housebroke it. They cut the choicest cutting and dubbed in narration from a young Ed McMahon, and released it as Daughter of Horror. Just as baffling but only half as artful, it stiffed.
Lavine has tracked down the rarely screened original in a 35mm print. He has managed several such coups for this year's two-week festival, including Ministry of Fear (Saturday, May 14), Fritz Lang's 1944 go at an espionage thriller, and restored prints of the '53 atomic melodrama The 49th Man (Wednesday, May 25), 1948's sparkling private-eye adventure I Love Trouble (Saturday, May 21), alongside six others that demonstrate the diversity of the noir style.
"That's style," Lavine argues. "It's more that than a genre. There are qualities we recognize as noir — paranoia, expressionistic shots, the ability of the filmmakers to present emotional states on film. But there's not a template for a noir like there is for a Western."
One of the style's hallmarks, of course, is noir's tendency toward bleakness. But that doesn't mean the films are downers. "One of the most gratifying things for me is seeing an audience of two hundred people leave the darkest of noirs just beaming. In a great mood!" he says.
In all, Lavine and the Roxie are screening 28 films in 14 double features. (A few boast happy endings.) Talking over the schedule, he bubbles up with excitement. "I think the greatest job anyone could ever have would be making B-movies in the '40s," he says. "There wasn't a lot of money invested in these movies, so even at a studio like Universal the filmmakers had very little of the usual oversight."
The filmmakers, Lavine says, didn't merely push the envelope on presentations of violence and sex. They also expanded the grammar of cinema itself, experimenting with shadows and sets and cockeyed camera angles to suggest what it might actually feel like to be one of the ne'er-do-wells caught up in the action. In Dementia's expressionistic skid row, the heroine gets pawed by plutocrats, witnesses her father killing her mother, and slowly comes to be capable of violence herself. As stiff and antiquated as Parker's midcentury psychology might seem to us, his scenecraft persuades: His camera glides after Barrett across what feel like fever dreams. They might upset, or in their literal-mindedness inspire laughter, but their achievement is hard to deny. This is a nightmare you'll likely emerge from smiling.