Sunshine and noir are antithetical, as probably anyone who knows even a word of French could tell you. Sunshine and film noir, nearly as much so. Yet summer’s here and the time is right for skulking in the murderously foggy streets, thanks to a three-day festival of vintage ’40s and ’50s crime dramas being presented this weekend at the newly reopened Hollywood Legion Theater by the Film Noir Foundation.
In a year that hadn’t started off with a pandemic in full force, or wasn’t continuing with Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre being closed for renovations, noir fans would have already something close to their fill with the annual Noir City festival that’s usually co-sponsored by the American Cinematheque every March or April. But with the absence of that 22-year-old standby leaving a doom-shaped hole in L.A. repertory moviegoers’ hearts, the Noir Foundation has stepped in with a shorter, if probably not sweeter, three-day festival to tide everyone over.
Says Alan K. Rode, who’ll be co-hosting the weekend of films with Eddie Muller, “Several of the scenes in ‘Cry Danger'” — a 1950 film that will screen Sunday night — “take place at a bar at the top of where Angels Flight is and that whole area of downtown. And they have a shot where you walk in from the sunlight into the bar that’s owned by some crook played by William Conrad. And I think we’re taking that experience and instead of walking out of the sunlight into a darkened bar, you’re going to be walking into a darkened movie theater to see these films.”
The weekend will see a total of seven films screened — six projected in 35mm, God and the final arrival of clean-looking prints willing. The lineup put together by Rode and Muller is in part a noir greatest-hits set — with all-time classics like “Nightmare Alley” and “Mildred Pierce” — but, for the cognoscenti, also includes a couple obscurities that the Film Noir Foundation rescued through its restoration efforts.
Rode, the foundation’s treasurer-director and a familiar face from Noir Cities past, was scheduled to be the sole in-person presenter, with Muller, the org’s president, doing his intros on video. But the lure of these films proved too much even for the Bay Area-based TCM “Noir Alley” host Muller, who decided to fly down for the Hollywood Legion shows after all.
The Hollywood Legion has been running films for months at its outdoor drive-in addendum, and “now that the theater is back open, you actually have two movie venues in a historic 1929 building site that was originally financed by people like Cecil B. DeMille to honor World War I veterans. So I can’t think of a better place to kick this off. And I’m really happy about the selection of films. it wasn’t too hard, because I just thought, ‘Let’s see, these are the ones that Eddie likes, and these are the ones I like,’ and went from there to program the films.”
Opening night Friday will bring the double feature of 1947’s “Nightmare Alley” — the dark masterpiece that plenty of cineastes have been itching to see or revisit on 35mm before Guillermo del Toro’s remake comes out in December — and the 1948 double-crossing suspense thriller “The Big Clock.”
Saturday night, it’s Joan Crawford in “Mildred Pierce,” which Rode, as director Michael Curtiz’s biographer, should have plenty to say about; that classic is paired with the lesser known “Thieves Highway,” directed by Jules Dassin.
Sunday afternoon brings a single-feature matinee of “The Narrow Margin.” The festival finale later that evening is another two-fer, with “Loophole” followed by “Cry Danger.” These last two are the rarities of the weekend, with the Noir Foundation having been involved in restoring both in years past.
Of these last two films, Rode says, “‘Loophole’ is a really obscure Allied Artists 1954 film with Barry Solomon, Dorothy Malone and Charles McGraw, and it’s really like ‘Les Miserables’ put in 1950s Los Angeles, down at the Farmer’s Market and places like that. That film was kind of a tribute to persistence, because we kept asking for it and asking for it over the years, back to when these festivals started back in 1999. Warner Bros. eventually found the print, found a reel that had Italian subtitles and so forth, and the Film Noir Foundation funded the striking of a new print, which is now out on DVD. So that’s a film that’s not shown a lot.
“And then I wanted to show one of our own restorations, and I picked ‘Cry Danger,’ which is such a time capsule of 1950s Los Angeles, all shot around Bunker Hill. There’s a trailer park —I believe it was up above Hill Street — where Dick Powell, Richard Erdman and Rhonda Fleming all live. The dialogue by Bill Bowers is a vitriol-tinged barrage of one-liners going back and forth. I think all of these films really bring the whole heart of film noir back to the heart of Hollywood.”
For Rode, this whole event is a two-fer. Besides being one of the two public faces of the Noir Foundation, he is also the chairperson of the theater committee at the Hollywood Legion — a position he’s naturally fit for, as one of filmdom’s leading historians and a military veteran/Post 43 member himself, as it happens. And he can’t stop talking up the 482-seat venue, which was almost completely made over a few years ago with a $4 million upgrade that allows for 35mm and even 70mm presentations as well as improved seating and design aesthetics. The indoor theater only came back online, as it were, last month, after its quarantine shutdown, although plenty of film buffs have discovered it in the last year as a celebrated 35mm drive-in facility was opened up in the parking lot behind the Highland Ave. landmark. Many of the new drive-in’s enthusiasts have still never been inside the Legion hall itself.
“Just remember that the historic bar at the Hollywood Legion Theater will be open in the evening for these films,” points out Rode. “The bar down there (on the lower level) is where Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable and all the rest of them used to hang out, and if you haven’t been in it, it’s a great experience. The Post 43 building has a lot of history in it. You’ll not only be able to see the films in a great modern venue in a historic building, you’ll also be able to go down to a historic bar and have a cocktail, and cocktails and film noir seem to go together for me.”
For some attendees, this noir mini-festival may represent picking up where they left off. It was right in the middle of the March 2020 Noir City festival that the severity of the pandemic became apparent. One night of that festival was held at the Hollywood Legion, and it had returned to the Egyptian down the hill for one last night before Muller, Rode and the Cinematheque realized they needed to pull the plug mid-week.
Rode can’t affirm strongly enough how rare it is to see these films in 35mm — and increasingly so as each year comes along, with studios not striking new prints and often putting their best existing ones under archival lock-and-key. Of the weekend’s crop of seven, only “Thieves Highway” is scheduled to be seen as a DCP, although he says they always have to reserve the right to substitute a digital source at the last minute if the reels that show up don’t pass muster.
“I think for people who want to see photochemical film projected, this is really a rare opportunity to do that, because trying to show films like ‘The Big Clock’ and ‘The Narrow Margin’ in 35 millimeter is not going to happen that often — it just isn’t. … I know a lot of people will be coming from out of town. And I’m certainly not dissing anybody else, but I think people who have not been in this theater that are used to going to some of the other repertory screenings in L.A. are going to be stunned when they walk in and see the Legion Theater and see how the films are presented.”
Rode points out that the Film Noir Foundation has not been idle during the pandemic, working on special Blu-Ray editions, its online magazine and its upcoming print annual edition. The Foundation’s latest restoration, of director Cy Endfield’s 1948 film “The Argyle Secrets,” is expected to premiere in January 2022 at the next edition of Noir City at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.
For any Angelenos looking for a next dose of noir closer to home than SF, Rode will again be hosting the annual Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs, usually a May event but now set for the desert this fall, Oct. 21-24, with a lineup yet to be announced.
For Rode, these are both good times and alarming times for noir fans and preservationists. Viewer interest is greater than ever, with plenty of love for the foundation’s online and print periodicals, and interest remaining high among Blu-Ray and DVD diehards — with all those items for sale at the souvenir tables this weekend — plus a great platform for the films with Muller’s weekly TCM show. On the downside is the lack of interest from most studios in doing further restorations or striking new prints; the recent retirement of one of their champions, Scott MacQueen, chief preservationist at UCLA (“He treated every restoration like it was ‘The Red Shoes'”); and the uncertainty facing the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which, whatever you might think about the group, invested big amounts of charitable money into film restorations.
But for this weekend, at least, happy days are here again, via these stories of fate sticking out its foot and tripping the wise guys and screen sirens of the ’40s and ’50s. “It’s something that I think anyone who loves film and lives here should take advantage of. For repertory cinema and classic cinema theaters to survive, people have to come out and buy tickets, and there’s not a different way — that’s it. These opportunities are shrinking, not expanding.”
The full schedule for the Hollywood Legion’s noir festival:
Friday, July 9 – “Nightmare Alley,” “The Big Clock” – 7:30 pm
Saturday, July 10 – “Mildred Pierce,” “Thieves Highway” – 7:30 pm
Sunday, July 11 – “The Narrow Margin” – 2 p.m. matinee
Sunday, July 11 – “Loophole,” “Cry Danger” – 7:30 pm
Tickets are available online at HollywoodLegionTheater.com or at the box office, priced at $22 for general admission to double features and $15 for the Sunday matinee, with discounts for veterans at $18, students at $16 and children under 12 for $12. Free parking is available in the Post 43 parking lot on a first-come basis, with additional free parking at the lot adjacent to the Hollywood Heritage Museum across Highland Ave.