- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2006

“Noir on New York Streets,” is the title of a brief retrospective series that will screen at the East Building of the National Gallery of Art for the next three weekends, revives a handful of the countless eligible movie thrillers that have found New York City an atmospheric asset. More specifically, suspense melodramas preoccupied with crime, crime prevention, ominous situations and imperiled protagonists.

The occupational range in this particular assortment, seven titles released between 1945 and 1956, extends from postal clerk (Farley Granger in “Side Street”) to counterespionage agent (William Eythe in “The House on 92nd Street”), homicide detective (Barry Fitzgerald and Don Taylor in “The Naked City”), mob attorney (John Garfield in “Force of Evil”), ex-con-turned-police-informer (Victor Mature in “Kiss of Death”), runaway-turned-dockworker (John Cassavetes in “Edge of the City”) and boxer (Jamie Smith in “Killer’s Kiss”).

The series is meant to supplement a photographic exhibit, “The Streets of New York,” but the parochial emphasis could be shifted to other major cities without running out of candidates.

Los Angeles, of course, could account for a formidable group even if confined to the same decade, roughly “Double Indemnity” through “Kiss Me Deadly.” Stretching the time frame would open the door for “Touch of Evil,” “Chinatown” and “The Player,” among other landmarks. San Francisco always was an evocative port of call for sinister activities, from “The Maltese Falcon” to “Thieves’ Highway” to “Vertigo” to “The Conversation.” Even the heartland has done its part, from “Panic in the Streets” and “Ace in the Hole” to “The Firm” and “One False Move” and last year’s hard-boiled holiday classic, “The Ice Harvest.”

Unfortunately, the title of the series also draws attention to the irksome domestication of the French critical term “film noir,” best left in quotes or italics, like the equally treacherous “auteur.” The literal meanings, “black film” and “author,” have been overwhelmed by an aura of artistic pretension and reverence that is difficult to take seriously when the subject matter is popular filmmaking, vintage or current.

At one time, these movies were understood to be thrillers, a preferable and helpfully elastic term. It will serve if you want to recognize the French contribution to cinematic crime fiction, from the pioneering serials of Louis Feuillade in the silent era through such exemplary exercises in suspense and dread as Marcel Carne’s “Le jour se leve,” Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “The Raven” and “Wages of Fear” and Costa-Gavras’ “The Sleeping Car Murders” and “Z.”

A book by an Englishman, Robin Buss, whimsically titled “French Film Noir” and published in 1994, helps trace interconnecting influences between Hollywood and European crime movies in the decades after World War II, which temporarily divorced French moviegoers and critics from American products. They came flooding back after the Liberation, and that wave of movies included no small soaking from suspense and mystery films, many of them reflecting the apprehensions, crises and compromises of the war years. The term “film noir” was directly related to an established line of crime fiction, “Serie noire,” a staple of the French publishing industry. It also echoed an 18th-century term, “roman noir,” shorthand for gothic novels.

One famous director, Alfred Hitchcock, was identified with the mystery genre throughout his career. Many other capable or distinctive filmmakers dabbled in it successfully. The National Gallery series includes one characteristic example from Jules Dassin, “The Naked City,” but he also directed “Brute Force” and “Thieves’ Highway” in the late 1940s before departing for Europe to evade the blacklist.

Henry Hathaway, who apprenticed in silent Westerns as a juvenile actor and then assistant director, ultimately returned to them while directing John Wayne’s best emeritus Westerns, “North to Alaska” in 1960 and “True Grit” in 1969. While a contract director at 20th Century-Fox in the late 1940s, he demonstrated an incisive flair for thrillers that adopted a semidocumentary pictorial style. Two durably entertaining examples are in the National Gallery series: “The House on 92nd Street” and “Kiss of Death.”

The former might as well kick off a Washington series because it bonds with the wartime FBI. The first image is the Capitol from Independence Avenue, with streetcars passing each other. The first recognizable face is that of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and a good deal of footage illustrates the work force, from file clerks to surveillance camera crews. A bit rashly, the film congratulates the bureau for foiling Nazi efforts to penetrate the Manhattan Project, referred to as “Process 97.” Obviously, Soviet spies found some cracks in the armor.

“Kiss of Death,” released in 1947, remains one of my favorite movies of the period, not so much because Henry Hathaway and cinematographer Norbert Brodine used real locations expressively, but because Victor Mature and Richard Widmark proved such temperamentally and physically perfect antagonists.

Mr. Mature looms heroically bulky and tenacious while struggling to go straight. Mr. Widmark, setting a fresh style in hoodlum degeneracy, revels in impishly menacing and diabolical attributes, notably a lewd grin and lunatic chuckle. One sequence fades as the hero, a salvageable felon on undercover duty, accompanies the unmitigated villain to a Manhattan brothel. The transactions modern directors wouldn’t hesitate to depict were left to the imagination 60 years ago. Imagination shudders at the thought of anyone obliged to witness Mr. Widmark’s Tommy Udo at play in a cathouse.

FILM SERIES: “Noir on New York Streets”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art; auditorium of the East Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN:”Side Street” (1950), Saturday at 3 p.m.; “The House on 92nd Street” (1945), Saturday at 4:30 p.m.; “The Naked City” (1948), Sunday at 5 p.m.; “Force of Evil” (1949), Oct. 28 at 2 p.m.;”Kiss of Death” (1947) and “Edge of the City” (1956), Oct. 29 at 4 p.m.; “Killer’s Kiss” (1955), Nov. 4 at 4:30 p.m.


PHONE: 202/847-6799

WEB SITE:www.nga.gov

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