Dark alleys, tough-talking lowlifes, dastardly dames out for revenge, gangster dust-ups and lots of snappy dialogue are just some of the hallmarks of film noir, the type of cinema that came as a result of the tumult brought on by the Great Depression and shaky political climate in the ’40s and ’50s. With all that in mind, this weekend marks the inaugural Noir City: Boston festival, held Friday through Sunday (June 8 to 10) at Cambridge’s Brattle Theatre, a longtime proponent of the genre.
“The Brattle’s connection to noir predates our taking over the theater — in fact, it goes all the way back to the earliest days of the Brattle as a cinema,” says Brattle Theatre Creative Director Ned Hinkle. “At this point, it’s just become a part of our DNA.”
Though the classic period of film noir began some 75 years ago and lasted only a mere decade or so, its popularity endures — nay, exists — due to the tireless efforts of Eddie Muller, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation. The mission of the non-profit is to find and preserve films in danger of being lost or irreparably damaged, and to ensure that high quality prints of these classic films remain in circulation for theatrical exhibition to future generations. Part of the funding comes from their annual ‘Noir City’ film festivals, which began 16 years ago in San Francisco and have since expanded to Chicago, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and Detroit.
Beginning Friday night and presenting 10 films — or five double-features — spread across three days, Noir City: Boston will spotlight both well-known and rare movies from the classic Veronica Lake/Alan Ladd 1942 crime drama The Glass Key and Burt Lancaster/Ava Gardner masterwork The Killers to the incredibly rare print of the 1950 gangster flick Try and Get Me!, starring Lloyd Bridges. Muller, revered as the “Czar of Noir,” will be on hand to introduce each film, which he handpicked and considers essential elements of cinematic history.
“It’s Hollywood’s only organic artistic movement,” Muller tells Vanyaland. “The artists made this happen, not the investors or focus groups… it was the perfect storm — writers, directors, cameramen, actors, all of them were ready explore darker, more adult themes.”
One of the more fascinating aspects of film noir is how fans both young and old seem to flock to the showings when they are made available on the big screen. The reasons for this vary, according to Muller, whether it’s a high or low point of interest in the genre, which has seen its share of fluctuation over the years.
“Some of it has to do with the rising interest in mid-20th century American culture, the ‘retro revival,’” Muller says. “But the interest has always been there, it just tends to go in cycles. I’ve lived through a few of them over the years and now I’m helping engineer another one. Some of the older viewers are drawn back because they feel it may be the last time they can see these films in 35mm on a big screen. For younger viewers, it may be the first time they’re seeing 35mm on a big screen. I’m just glad that my shows draw both these viewers. That’s rare these days.”
Adds Hinkle: “The appeal for us at the Brattle — and I think it’s the same thing that makes them both an essential part of film history and an entry point for new, younger fans of classic film — is the unique fusion of entertainment value with artful filmmaking.”
For Hinkle and the Brattle, Noir City is a perfect fit. Boston’s “unofficial film school” has been the go to spot for years, culminating in the “75 Years of Film Noir” celebration which began in late 2015. The Brattle has had a relationship with film noir that goes back to a time when the genre had virtually just been identified.
“I’ve really been tracking the various ‘Noir City’ festivals since their beginning and I’ve followed Eddie’s career closely as a fan of film noir,” Hinkle says. “We’ve pursued creating a ‘Noir City: Boston’ various times [over] the years but the timing just never seemed right or we got pulled in different directions. I think that bringing Noir City to the Brattle will have reciprocal benefits for both the Brattle and the Film Noir Foundation — bringing new fans to both.”
Muller, who hosts TCM’s “Noir Alley” each Saturday at midnight and has written multiple books on the subject, knows it’s a deep dive when it comes to characterizing what exactly constitutes film noir, an endless debate for cinephiles. But there are commonalities that run through the catalog of films classified under the noir banner.
“They are tales of existential futility,” he says. “The flip side of the Hollywood myth of ‘happily ever after.’ They are always about people wanting something so desperately that they’ll do things they never imagined they were capable of…and it generally doesn’t end well.”
Yet as enticing as film noir can be, there are some people out there, let’s call them “film snobs,” who turn their nose up at the genre, considering it nothing more than a low-budget representation of an era of cinema better left forgotten. Asked what they are missing, Muller is quick to answer.
“Their souls,” he says without hesitation. “I presume you’re referring to a strain of highbrow film aesthete who disdains anything that becomes ‘contaminated’ by mainstream popularity. I have no use for them. My role in all this is to ensure that young viewers maintain an appreciation of classic cinema and film noir is a great way to initiate them. The more people in the tent, the better. Those folks who think that noir’s popularity has somehow diminished the films — well, you called it — they’re snobs.”
It’s that sort of unflinching honesty and swift retort which endears Muller to film noir lovers around the world, and what will be undoubtedly be on full display at Noir City: Boston this weekend.
“Eddie is going to bring his vast amounts of film noir knowledge to these events,” says Hinkle. “Alongside his trademark classic film wardrobe of course… I just don’t have enough fedoras in my closet to pull off anything near his level of style.”
NOIR CITY: BOSTON :: Friday, June 8 through Sunday June 10 at The Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle St. in Cambridge, MA :: All ages, $12 to $14 :: Brattle Theatre Event Page :: Featured Photo of Murder My Sweet provided by The Brattle Theatre
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