My Noir: Belfast Film Season

Queen's Film Theatre hosts a season of classic and modern film noir flicks as part of the Belfast Festival at Queen's

Film Noir, the dark heart of American cinema, has been thrilling audiences around the world since the 1930s, although the term was only first used by French critic Nino Frank in 1946.

‘Black film’ was named after the highly expressive black and white lighting style that had its roots in German expressionist cinematography, and was brought to Hollywood by European filmmakers escaping the march of Nazism in Europe.

This style, married to stories torn from the pages of pulp fiction, had its heyday in the 1940s and 50s before being revived in the 1970s by directors including Roman Polanksi and Robert Altman. It has had mini-revivals ever since, and noir films have emerged from countries as diverse as Japan and Norway.

Film noir encompasses a range of stories, usually featuring a private eye as handy with a quip as they are with their fist and a beautiful femme fatale as dangerous as a black widow spider. The films take place in an amoral universe, where sex and death go hand in glove, and the shadows are as dark as the villain’s heart.

In celebration of the form, a series of screenings under the title 'My Noir: Belfast’ is showing at the Queen's Film Theatre as part of the Ulster Bank Festival at Queens in collaboration with Cornerhouse, Manchester from October 18 – 27.

Chosen by leading critics, programmers and curators, this selection of movies encompasses the classic 1940s noir of Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep, the emergence of ‘neo-noir’ in the 1990s, and a couple of selection of foreign noirs.

Kicking the season off is Billy Wilder’s 1944 classic Double Indemnity. With a script co-written by the master of pulp fiction, Raymond Chandler, from a novella by James M Cain – who also wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice – this is one of the finest noirs ever made.

Starring Fred MacMurray as an insurance salesman, Barbara Stanwyck as a duplicitous housewife who wants her husband dead, and Edward G Robinson as a claims adjuster whose job it is to find phony claims, Double Indemnity – named after an insurance clause that doubles the payout in cases of death by accidental means – is an enthralling, brilliantly realised melodrama that sets a very high standard for the films that follow.

Adapted from the Ernest Hemingway short story, Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, released in 1946, introduced screen audiences to Burt Lancaster, who plays 'the Swede', an ex-boxer hiding out in small town America who passively accepts his fate when warned that two hitmen are in town to kill him.

A life insurance investigator played by Edmond O’Brien is assigned to track down and pay the beneficiary of the Swede’s policy, and pieces together a tale of a payroll robbery, organised crime and a double-crossing femme fatale in the shapely form of Ava Gardner.

The set-up of The Killers was so adaptable it was remade in the 1960s by Don Siegel and starred Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes and Ronald Reagan (in his final screen role) with the world of race car driving replacing the boxing ring.

Also released in 1946, Charles Vidor’s Gilda features Rita Hayworth in her signature role as the ultimate femme fatale, spinning a web of lies and deceit around gambler Johnny Farrell, played by Glenn Ford. Set in exotic Buenos Aires, Gilda is noted for its lush cinematography as well as various dance numbers and an oft-imitated sequence when Hayworth performs a striptease for a room full of male patrons.

Other classic Hollywood noirs of the 1940s included in the season are Jacques Tourneur’s convoluted, yet satisfyingly dark Out of the Past, and The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks big screen adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel. With a script co-written by William Faulkner, the movie is arguably the high watermark of 1940s film noir, and still stands today as one of the finest films ever made.

Also from the 1940s is Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog. Influenced by the Hollywood noir of The Naked City, Kurosawa – a true giant of cinema – directs a story set amidst the bombed ruins of post-war Tokyo.

When rookie cop Murakami (played by Toshiro Mifune) has his pistol stolen during a trolley ride and it is later used in a crime, he partners up with veteran homicide detective Sato (played by Takashi Shimura) to track down the thief. Filmed in 1949 but not released in the United States until 1963, the film would in turn be regarded as a major influence on the ‘buddy cop’ genre.

The second wave of film noir in Hollywood arrived around the same time as America lost faith in itself, when the youth of the nation were protesting against the Vietnam War and the political elite. The use of colour film did nothing to lighten the tone of these 'neo noirs', and the classic stories of private eyes, dangerous dames and double-crosses were oftentimes told with an added dose of existential despair.

Any number of great films could have been chosen to represent this period in noir history, from Roman Polanski’s Chinatown to Robert Altman’s take on the Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. The curators of the season have chosen Arthur Penn's lesser-known Night Moves, starring the ever excellent Gene Hackman as private detective Harry Moseby, hired by an ageing actress to find her daughter, Delly, a trust-funded wild child who has gone missing.

Following a trail from Los Angeles to the Florida Keys, Harry discovers that finding Delly is only the beginning of a much larger mystery. Featuring early performances from Melanie Griffith and James Woods, Night Moves was not a success on its release, though the succeeding years have seen its reputation rise. It’s now seen as a seminal movie of the 1970s.

The late 1980s and 90s saw film noir make another comeback, often with added ingredients. From the ‘horror noir’ of Alan Parker’s 1987 film Angel Heart, starring Mickey Rourke as Harry Angel and Robert DeNiro as Louis Cyphre (the character names are not the most subtle things in the movie), to the ‘Lesbian noir’ of Bound, the directorial debut of the Wachowski brothers.

Showing as part of the 'My Noir: Belfast' season, Bound stars Jennifer Tilly as Violet, a young woman who longs to escape from her relationship with her mafia boyfriend. When she meets ex-con Corky (played by Gina Gershon), the two women hatch a scheme to steal $2 million of mob money. Filmed on a small budget, the film gained praise for its realistic portrayal of lesbian characters in a mainstream film, as well as criticism for its excessive use of violence.

John Dahl’s The Last Seduction, released in 1994, was one of the most successful neo noirs of the 1990s, helped in no small part by Linda Fiorentino’s smouldering performance as Bridget, a ruthless manipulator whose only motivation is money. Unusually for a film noir, Bridget is the (anti)hero of the film, and the movie almost revels in the way she manipulates every man she comes into contact with. A hugely enjoyable film, The Last Seduction is modern noir at its sexiest.

Sex of a different kind is on show in John McNaughton’s ‘erotic noir’ Wild Things. Released in 1998, the film gained notoriety for its explicit sex scenes, particularly a ménage a trios which went beyond what had then been seen in a Hollywood movie.

Starring Matt Dillon, Kevin Bacon, Denise Richards, Naeve Campbell and Bill Murray, this tale of a high school counsellor accused of rape by two female students has more twists than a Chubby Checker album, but sails a little too close to B-movie trash for some tastes.

European noir is represented by 1997's Insomnia, later remade in Hollywood as a star vehicle for Al Pacino. Set in Norway’s nightless Arctic summer, relentless light replaces dark shadow as two police detectives investigate a murder in a small town located above the Arctic Circle. The investigation goes wrong when one cop, Engstrom (played by Stellan Skarsgard), mistakenly kills the other.

Covering up his mistake, Engstrom carries on his investigation whilst at the same time trying to deal with the guilt he suffers over the death of his partner, leading to the sleep deprivation of the title. More a psychological drama than a true noir story, Insomnia is still well worth a watch, and fans of Scandinavian television crime drama’s will find much to enjoy.

The most modern noir of this festival package is Rian Johnson’s 2005 Sundance-winning debut Brick, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The film divided audiences on its release, with its classic noir story given a fresh twist by being set in a modern-day high school in California and its youthful characters spouting dialogue more familiar coming from the mouths of Bogart and Bacall.

Whether you find this infuriating or not is down to your willingness to go along with the conceit. Director Johnson helps by playing the film straight: his characters are not talking this way to be ironic. The movie is clearly an homage to classic film noir, but works as a clever mystery story in its own right.

My Noir: Belfast runs at the QFT Belfast from October 18 – 27 as part of the Belfast Festival at Queen's. Check the QFT website for details of specific dates and showtimes.