Sidney Poitier — film noir icon? That may not be one of the phrases that popped up most frequently in the recent obituaries and appreciations for the late actor, but Poitier did take his turn at noir. The movie with which he made his screen debut, “No Way Out,” will be featured at the upcoming resumption of the annual Noir City Hollywood Festival, which is devoting separate days to the treatment of race and women in the crime dramas of the ’40s and ’50s, along with a continued focus on presenting restorations in 35mm glory.
Noir City Hollywood has been a staple at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre each spring since the late ’90s, but with that theater closed for extensive Netflix-funded renovations, this year it will take place at the Hollywood Legion Theatre a few blocks up Highland Blvd. Hosted as always by Film Noir Foundation president (and TCM “Noir Alley” host) Eddie Muller and board member/treasurer Alan K. Rode, it’ll transpire over a condensed three-day period instead of the usual 10, on April 15-17, which will make for more of a sprint than a marathon for the hardcore.
“After it was canceled last year,” says Rode, “we felt that a 10-day festival might be a bridge too far, but we certainly want to go back to that when the Egyptian is reopen. “Doing this with eight films over a weekend felt definitely more viable right now, particularly when it’s the weekend before the TCM Classic Film Festival, and we’re hopeful that people coming for that will come into town early for Noir City.”
The lineup includes two separate features a night Friday through Sunday, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday — all with the full-bar service in a historically significant locale that has helped make the Legion’s theater a destination for repertory film and some Cinematheque-promoted detours in the last few years. “I can’t think of a better place to have a cocktail between watching film noir movies from the ’40s and ’50s than the same bar where Bogart and Gable used to hang out and shoot pool,” Rode says.
The opening night double-header will concentrate on the Film Noir Foundation’s restorations, the newest being a hot-off-the-presses “The Argyle Secrets,” a 1948 film that just re-premiered in early February at theNoir City Seattle festival. “This film is a quintessential B-movie, with a running time slightly over an hour— a very clever movie about an investigative reporter who’s dying and tells his assistant about a book called ‘The Argyle Secrets’ that contains a list of people who were traders and war profiteers during World War II. And after the reporter is done in, the assistant is framed and he has to unframe himself. But it’s very pithy, very exciting, shot on location in Los Angeles, and it shows the early part of (director-writer-producer) Cy Endfield’s career.” It will be preceded on that Friday night by an earlier Noir Foundation restoration, “Try and Get Me,” a true-life-based tale of a town taking vengeance on kidnappers.
Female leads get their place in the sun — or in the darkness — on Saturday the 16th, starting with a matinee of “The Prowler,” a film that in recent years has leaped to the top of the most talked-about noirs, thanks to a restoration by the Noir Foundation and UCLA that has become a popular Blu-Ray. The evening double feature matches “The Accused,” which Rode says “is a Library of Congress 35mm print — your tax dollars at work doing good things,” with what he calls the most quintessential women-in-prison picture ever made, “Caged,” with Oscar-nominated performances from both Eleanor Parker and Hope Emerson (“as the matron from hell”).
The Sunday matinee, “The Underworld Story,” brings together three major elements of the 2022 festival: director Endfield, a racial theme, and a Film Noir Foundation-funded 35mm print (by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, via rights holder Warner Bros.). Says Rode, “This is a fascinating story of murder and media power, and the power of the system to frame a very humble African-American maid — who, sad to say, is played by a caucasian actress. That shows you the type of racism that was endemic, not only in terms of the story, which is groundbreaking, but in terms of Hollywood, where they apparently didn’t think that it was all right to cast an African-American as an African-American. In its way, though, it’s really groundbreaking, and we think showing it helps put all of this into context.”
Wrapping up the fest on Sunday night will be “No Way Out,” “which is of course the late, great Sidney Poitier’s screen debut, opposite Richard Widmark, and really a groundbreaking film that established Sidney as an actor of consequence. And the last feature is going to be ‘The Breaking Point,’ which is probably Michael Curtiz’s best post-World War II film in my opinion” — which is worth something, since Rode is Curtiz’s biographer (with a revised paperback of that book recently issued). Besides being John Garfield’s penultimate film, it has a key part played by Juano Hernandez as Garfield’s friend, “in a non-stereotypical role that was very unusual for its time,” Rode notes. “And it’s really the true screen version of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘To Have and Have Not.'”
Says Rode, “I think seven of the eight films are scheduled to be in 35mm, and that’s becoming a rarity for all the reasons that everyone is aware of. And half of them are actual photochemical restorations. So we’re happy about that, because we want to shine a light on film preservation, because film preservation is so critical. But in addition to showing a number of the films that we have funded the preservation of and preserved, we look at it like we’re also restoring and maintaining the experience of showing these movies in a venue like this, and on film, on the big screen.”
The 2022 edition of the fest is a four-way junction — essentially a collaboration between the Film Noir Foundation and the Hollywood Legion Theatre, with, as co-sponsors, the Cinematheque (“We we want to maintain that over-two-decade relationship that we’ve had with them”) and the UCLA Film and Television Archive.
Spring is definitely a boom time for noir in California; as the days get longer, repertory festivals get a little darker. Preceding Noir City Hollywood by a bit will be the return of the Bay area equivalent, which used to run at the currently shuttered Castro in San Francisco. It was moved to the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland in January, then postponed due to the omicron surge, but has now been rescheduled for March 24-27, with Muller at the helm. Then, after the L.A. fest, Rode will present his annual Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs, with Muller as a guest presenter, on a weekend soon to be announced in May.
In Hollywood, there may be some flashbacks for returning viewers: In March 2020, the festival was just a little more than halfway through its 10 days at the Egyptian when it was shut down, with one of its final showings being a one-night detour to the Legion Theatre.
“I think that there’s now a second type of urgency” in keeping repertory showings alive, Rode says, “because the experience of seeing films together in a movie theater has been dissipated by both technology and COVID. And I think that’s something that’s integral to our culture, and it’s certainly something that needs to be preserved and needs to be celebrated. And that’s part of Noir City, where we’re selling not just the films and film preservation — it’s also the whole experience of seeing a movie with like-minded people in the dark in a theater. And certainly that’s something that culturally and intrinsically we don’t want to see go away.”
It may surprise some who haven’t been to these screenings in the past just how (relatively) young attendees can skew. Fedoras are not a barrier to entry for a demographic that’s not yet in its 40s, let alone able to remember the 1940s.
“It’s amazing that with film noir, the darkness is turning on the light on classic film,” Rode says. “Noir is what is really making classic film viable for a younger generation, because it’s all in the story and all in the dialogue. There’s a certain aspect about film noir that’s so timeless, a generation raised on computers and emails and the modern world we live incan identify with these films because they cover the range of human desires, emotions and weaknesses. Despite seeing doctors smoking cigarettes in hospitals, and men wearing hats and phones the size of boomerangs,” he chuckles, “people are still basically people, and they identify with the themes of these movies. These movies reflected a movement in Hollywood, and as the culture changed, the film noir movement reflected that change, and I think still does.”
Tickets for the Noir City Hollywood shows are $18 and currently available at https://www.hollywoodlegiontheater.com/indoor-theater-showtimes, with discounts for students, military, Cinematheque and Post 43 members. Vaccination proof is required for those over 18.