A dark desert highway isn’t just something in an Eagles song — it’s what some Angelenos will be taking to Palm Springs this weekend to experience the particular shade of nightfall that is film noir. The Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival is resuming at the Palm Springs Cultural Center after a pandemic-mandated time-out last year, offering a slate of a dozen familiar or obscure picks over the course of one concentrated weekend, some of them unspooling in rare 35mm prints.
Alan K. Rode, a familiar presence to L.A. repertory filmgoers, not to mention noir fans around the country, is returning as producer and host, joined as a presenter by cohort Eddie Muller, the host of TCM’s “Noir Alley.” TCM is signing onto the Palm Springs event as a presenting sponsor for the first time.
Films range from one of the quintessential noirs, “The Big Sleep,” on the household-name end to a pair of ’40s and ’50s foreign films, “El Vampiro Negro” and “Uai Des Orveres,” on the more obscure side. In-between are such well-known picks as “Night Has a Thousand Eyes” and forgotten, nearly impossible-to-see movies like “Playgirl” and “The Restless Moment.”
The festival begins Thursday with Otto Preminger’s 1950 “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” with star Dana Andrews’ daughter Susan Andrews scheduled for a Q&A about her father before passholders assemble for the opening-night party.
There will be other opportunities to get a drink throughout the weekend, though. Rode points out that at the Palm Springs Cultural Center — formerly the Camelot — “you have a theater that has a restaurant in it, two bars, an elevator and a spiral staircase. And to me, it’s the best place that I’ve found for adults to watch a movie. I mean, where else can you watch a film noir movie and sip on a martini while watching Bogart and Bacall?”
The marathon-like nature of the festival — which has films screening as often as 10 a.m., 1 p.m., 4 and 7 at its peak on Friday and Saturday — ensures that some of the most die-hard four-day passholders will do a lot of eating and imbibing on the premises in order not to miss anything. Individual ticket-buyers do make up much of the attendance, though, whether it’s Coachella Valley locals or film fans making a run in for a day or two from L.A. (Ticket and program information can be found here.)
Film noir, as an unofficial genre, always had a soft spot for southern California, for reasons both practical and possibly thematic. And the area is blessed to be the only place in the country with two high-profile noir festivals each year, both of them presented by the Film Noir Festival — Noir City, which usually takes place at the Egyptian in Hollywood in March or April, and the Arthur Lyons Festival, which up to now had long taken place every Mother’s Day weekend. With Noir City axed for both 2020 and 2021 due to a combination of the pandemic and Netflix’s renovation of the Egyptian, the Lyons Fest is the only real SoCal opportunity this year for a concentrated dose of granular crime, murder, betrayal and (sometimes) redemption.
Rode talks about the differences between the Hollywood and Palm Springs annuals: “It’s more compressed — three and a half days, where the Noir City program is spread out over 10 days. At one point early on, Noir City was two solid weeks, and then Eddie and I found at the end, when we were both losing our voices, that that was a long time.” The Arthur Lyons Fest squeezes almost as much in, for the hardy — one film on Thursday night, four on Friday and Saturday, and three on closing day. “I used to have a late movie on Sunday, too, but so many people are going back to L.A., so I just dropped that last one — and got rid of the number 13, which isn’t lucky anyway.”
A three-way book signing will occur Saturday afternoon, with Rode signing the revised and expanded paperback edition of his “Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film,” Muller putting pen to his newly revised “Dark City,” and Steven C. Smith on hand to autograph “Music by Max Steiner: The Epic Life of Hollywood’s Most Influential Composer.” Smith will also speak about Steiner prior to the screening of “The Big Sleep.”
Rode used to have the surviving stars of the films out, like Ernest Borgnine, Tony Curtis and Jane Russell, but those opportunities have gotten fewer, so he’s lately specialized in bringing in the actors’ or directors’ children. Besides Andrews’ daughter, the festival will again include an appearance by Victoria Mature, daughter of Victor, the star of this year’s attraction “The Long Haul.” Mark Fleischer, son of director Richard Fleischer, will be interviewed in conjunction with a showing of the Cinemascope crime thriller “Violent Saturday.”
What follows is a rundown of this year’s films, with commentary on some of the titles by Rode:
Thursday, Oct. 21
7:30 p.m.: “Where the Sidewalk Ends”
“Dana Andrews, aside from being a great actor, was a very high-character guy. Susan is really forthright in talking about her father and what type of person he was. Sadly, he was an alcoholic, but he eventually conquered his alcoholism and reclaimed his life after a lifetime of drinking. I remember Norman Lloyd telling me, ‘He was a prince of a man.'”
Friday, Oct. 22
10 a.m.: “Night Has a Thousand Eyes”
1 p.m.: “The Big Sleep”
“I like to put on films that wouldn’t be seen unless they were restored, but I like to also show a popular classic or two. I you haven’t seen Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall on the big screen, I don’t think you can call yourself a cineaste or a film fan. That’s a box that has to be checked.”
4 p.m.: “Vampire Negro (The Black Vampire)”
7 p.m.: “Uai Des Orveres”
“‘El Vampiro Negro’ is not on streaming, DVD or Blu-Ray. That was literally rescued from extinction. I’s subtitled, and it was the third version of Fritz Lang’s ‘M,’ but it was made in Argentina in 1953 with a very feminist slant. It’s just a haunting, beautiful film, and we got it just in time to preserve it. Then, I think there is, for lack of a better term, an arthouse group of cineastes and people who like those type of films in Palm Springs, and I wanted to show a French film. There are so many great French noirs, but this particular one is just such a wonderful, mysterious, suspenseful and just heartwarming film with great performances. “
Saturday, Oct. 23
10 a.m.: “The Cruel Tower”
“One of the things Arthur Lyons was very big on was showing B-films with pencil budgets and unknown actors. … Paramount was nice enough to do a digital scan and make a DCP of ‘The Cruel Tower’ from 1956 starring actors like Charles McGraw, Alan Hale Jr., Steve Brodie, John Erickson and the statuesque Mari Blanchard. This is high-camp, noir-stained melodrama that is really a lot of fun.”
11:30 a.m.: Book signing with Rode, Muller and Smith
1 p.m.: “Angels With Dirty Faces”
“At long last, I’ve been able to show what is not really a film noir, but a proto-noir gangster film, which has been for legal reasons that I’m not privy to unavailable for around 10 years — not shown on TV, not shown theatrically. Apparently those issues have been straightened out. Warner Bros. was nice enough to release this film, so there’s a 35mm print. This is the film that established James Cagney as America’s favorite gangster, Rocky Sullivan. And it has Bogart, Pat O’Brien, who’s a priest, and his girlfriend, Ann Sheridan, and of course the Dead End Kids that idolize him.”
4 p.m. “High Wall”
“I don’t want to say it’s a preservation, but we funded the striking of this print by Warner Bros. for ‘High Wall,’ which I think is one of Robert Taylor’s best performances. The film noir plot trope is he’s a brain-damaged GI with amnesia who confesses to murdering his unfaithful wife. And of course his psychiatrist when he’s committed to a state sanitarium is Audrey Totter. I think in 1947, if Audrey Totter was a psychiatrist, I’d have some sort of mental problems just to go see her.”
7 p.m.: “Violent Saturday”
“A 1955 Deluxe Color Cinemascope film directed by the estimable Richard Fleischer, with three hoods, including a Benzedrine-inhaling Lee Marvin, planning a weekend robbery of a bank in a small Southwestern town. They actually filmed this in Bisbee, Arizona. And of course the town is the film noir version of Peyton Place, with Victor Mature and Sylvia Sidney and Richard Egan — and when you add in Ernest Borgnine as an Amish farmer who encounters the robbers, you’ve got one hell of a weekend. Fleischer’s son, Mark, who’s a wonderful guy — a carbon copy of his father, and a great raconteur – will be our guest for that.”
Sunday, Oct. 24
10 a.m.: “Playgirl”
“We showed it at the Egyptian in 2019, and Colleen Miller was there. I couldn’t get her out for this, but this is Shelley Winters as a New York chantoosie involved in an extramarital affair with Barry Sullivan and Richard Long. This is one of the director Joe Pevney’s Universal melodramas that has been sitting in a vault for over half a century. And it has Shelley Winters unbound.”
1 p.m.: “The Long Haul”
“This was the next-to-last movie we showed at Noir City in 2020 before the pandemic shut us down. This is Victoria’s dad Victor as an American GI in Britain, and he becomes a long-haul truck driver, and finds corruption, and also finds Diana Dors.”
4 p.m.: “The Reckless Moment”
“One of my favorite movies of any kind. It’s Joan Bennett taking charge of her beachside household in Balboa, and her daughter has a bad boyfriend and things go downhill from there, including a run-in with James Mason. Really a great Max Ophuls film. I was very fortunate to get the print of this from Sony Columbia; the theatrical rights apparently are now owned by Paramount, so I had to do a little negotiating. Fortunately, my good friend and the dean of studio archivists, Grover Crisp, really helped me out.”
None of the films have previously been shown at the festival, as Rode likes to maintain a no-repeat policy; yes, even “The Big Sleep” is getting its Palm Springs festival bow.
Of the festival, which attracts some out-of-country-ers as well as out-of-towners, “It’s kind of like the film noir version of ‘Same Time Next Year.’ It’s just great to see all these people that we don’t normally see, and this festival has been a real sweet spot in my life. And even though streaming and watching movies at home are great, I think along with helping preserve films, I like to think that with festivals like this, we’re also preserving the experience, of sitting with like-minded people in the dark, in a movie theater watching a classic film on the big screen, which is how things are supposed to be.”
Rode also believes the festival will be safe, as proof of vaccination is required for anyone buying a pass or individual ticket.
The festival was founded in 2000 by namesake Lyons and moved to its current home the following year: a casual spot with ample free parking, a relaxed off-the-main-drag vibe and, best of all, a decades-old 400-seat theater — two small additional screening rooms were later add-ons — that has maintained its 35mm capabilities, primarily for this festival. (Having two bars doesn’t hurt, considering the gin-soaked genre, as Rode points out.) Lyons, who was a local city councilman, detective fiction writer and author of “Death on the Cheap: The Lost World of B Film Noir,” died in 2008, and the festival was renamed in his honor.
Individual tickets and four-day passes can be purchased here.