After the trauma of World War II, Americans wanted to take shelter in the blithely inoffensive music and film of the late ’40s and ’50s. And yet the darker undercurrents, the hangovers of wartime, couldn’t be fully eradicated, especially from the cinema screen. Film noir—less a genre than a style—emerged in the form of twisted tales about crooks, dicks, and femme fatales. Unlike the breezy romances and square-jawed westerns of the era, noir dealt with fear, loss, and ambiguous morality. Shot in stark black and white, these were stories about all the shades of gray in between.
This week Elliot Lavine, former programmer of San Francisco’s historic Roxie Theater (and a soon-to-be Portlander), is bringing 16 examples of the film noir style to Cinema 21, several on 35mm. With one or two exceptions, these are ticketed as double features; most of the films clock in at a brisk 80 or 90 minutes. Their concision only compounds their effectiveness—these are movies of paranoia, obsession, and unease, and they’re eerily applicable to the mood of 2017.
The big names are The Manchurian Candidate and The Big Heat, both of which remain astounding, must-see works. Dig a little deeper, though, and check out the truly demented Kiss Me Deadly, which attaches nuclear anxiety to a mystery about a girl hitchhiker. The camera work is gorgeous and disorienting, and the finale is truly chilling. Raw Deal is another visual stunner, a love triangle set against a multi-state prison getaway. Ride the Pink Horse is a film noir western set in a New Mexican border town, with marvelous characters and a real sense of place. The Killing is early Stanley Kubrick, one of the best heist movies ever. And Black Angel is the story of a song called “Heartbreak,” and a subsequent murder; the tune is pure schmaltz, but the heartbreak is palpable.